Chronicles of the Pax: Pandemonium (4)

 

Jessie stirred in the great bed she shared with Charles. She looked at the too-small Chamberlain’s garb, the badge of her new office, and shook her head. Nala would know where to find it. Rummaging through a closet, she found a plain shirt and breeches belonging to the new Baron. Jessie held the shirt up to her nose, inhaling deeply, it still smelled of him. She smiled involuntarily.

A sound from the bed as Charles stirred, murmuring and rolling over, thick arm searching for her in his dreaming, his hands, rough looking yet surprisingly gentle, questing in the warm void of her vacancy. A soft smile still on her face, she moved as gently as she could to his side, kissing his black-bearded face tenderly.

“Shhh, go back to sleep love.” She whispered.

“Mmmm…” he murmured, sinking deeper into slumber.

Jessie took a pair of thick socks from a drawer, using them to muffle the hooves at the end of her digitigrade legs. Satisfied, the Taurean moved to a fresco on the wall, stealthily sliding behind it and into the labyrinthine servant’s passages. Ostensibly built to keep the main halls clear for the nobles and any visiting dignitaries, they allowed the household staff discrete access throughout the keep. Jessie continued through the passages, turning here and there, before coming to what looked to be an abandoned storage room. With the expertise of practice, Jessie pulled a plank on a seemingly random pile of lumber, and a secret door opened with a droning creak.

“For Maou’s sake, do they not know to oil the hinges?” Jessie cursed to herself softly. Entering the now open passageway, lit dimly by phosphorescent fungi, she hurried down a rough hewn tunnel, which twisted as it ran into the earth.

“What do Ants have against straight lines?” Jessie complained silently, as not a few times she nearly stumbled on the uneven ground in the near-darkness.

The passage widened, and a solid door of insectile construction stood before her. As she moved to open it, she heard a chittering growl from the darkness beside her. A pair of baleful, glowing eyes stared from the swarming black, regarding her with suspicion. Jessie almost panicked before she realized. Charles’s smell was still on the clothes.

“It’s only me.” She said softly. Recognising her voice, the unknown guardian retreated back into the blackness.

Jessie opened the door. A wide, candle-lit room stood before her, culminating in a sandstone altar. Two Jackal-eared Mamono before the altar looked up at her in surprise, before bowing their heads in respectful recognition. Jessie returned their greeting.

“Don’t let me rush you.” She murmured.

“We had just finished, Hathor.” One said, her accent harsh and alien.

“Do you have lodgings? The golden deserts are a long way from here.” Jessie offered.

“Ammit has provided, though we thank you for the charity.” The other Anubian replied, inclining her head with a smile.

“Justice guide you” Jessie said in ritual.

“Your heart be weighed lightly.” The Anubians replied formally, before exiting through a side passage, one Jessie knew led to a discrete copse of trees well away from the keep.

Closing the doors, Jessie removed the makeshift mufflers from her hooves, and kneeled before the altar.

“Homage to you, Ammit, Mistress of Eternity, Dread Queen of Justice, whose names are manifold, whose forms are holy, you being of hidden form in the temples, whose Ka is holy…” Jessie intoned fervently.

“Hathor” A voice echoed from all around her.

“Dread Queen, I am here.” Jessie answered, a tint of reverent fear in her voice.

“I have not summoned you.” The voice mused

“I know, Dread Queen. I-I came of my own accord.” Jessie stammered.

“I am not displeased, Hathor. Speak.” The voice of Ammit entreated.

“Charles knows, Dread Queen.”

“And who could have told him, I wonder?” Ammit mused, a lilt of faint amusement in her voice.

Jessie knew she was edging close to blasphemy. “H-He said… He said you did.”

“He did not lie, I granted him a small revelation, for service rendered. It serves neither you nor I that the shadow of his suspicion be upon you.”

Jessie sighed with relief.

“He does not know the extent of it, but as he travelled the Roads of the Dead, he passed beneath My gaze. He was… Not found wanting.”

“You find him worthy?” Jessie exclaimed with breathless anticipation.

“I find him interesting, let us not press matters before their time.” Ammit chided gently.

Jessie lowered her head humbly, horns flashing in the candlelight. “Forgive me, Dread Queen.”

“It is of no matter, Hathor. You are young, and life burns brightly within you. I do not begrudge your enthusiasm.”

“There is… One small matter…” Jessie hesitantly broached.

“Hathor, speak up. I did not Call a Kikimora to My Priesthood.” Ammit rejoined bluntly.

“I have been promoted to Chamberlain of Caladon.” Jessie ventured.

“This mundanity is of import to Me… why?”

“I may not have the autonomy I previously held within the keep… My duties are…”

“Not My concern.” Ammit interrupted brusquely. “Nothing that has transpired has escaped My notice, Hathor. I am confident that you will do as you can, and that you will have the wisdom to know where others will need to carry the burden for you.”

“Thank you, Dread Queen.” Jessie murmured, lowering her head reverently again as she felt Ammit’s presence lift from the altar.

Standing, Jessie inspected the rude shrine. A few of the candles were burning low, so she replaced them with fresh ones, before re-muffling her hooves and heading back to the keep.

“Do you know what the definition of insanity is, brother junior warden?” Samuel asked in exasperation.

“I certainly hope your meandering is reaching some sort of point eventually, brother.” The resonant in the western officer’s chair replied with polite amusement. “But by all means, enlighten us.”

“It’s doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting a different result.” Samuel continued. “Brother Harold has informed me of the backlog of continuance requests currently before the lodge. My simple query was, how effective has it been in increasing the number of successful candidates?”

“Oi! Don’t drag me into this, just because you insist on inspecting the teeth on a centaur, ya muppet!” Harold cried from the tiered seating where the rest of the resonants sat. A ripple of laughter spread through the room, and Samuel gave a grin and a rude gesture in the direction of the Manchesterian Continental.

“Brethren, I’m not trying to turn us into ascetics. Many of us are from Noble houses, which would make such a suggestion Blasphemy in any case. If the Magisterium is so concerned about our numbers, one would think that perhaps we should start looking at a more reasoned approach than just throwing breeding partners at us like bedservants.”

“Brother, the Magisterium doesn’t understand how the Logos chooses whom to Awaken.” A middle-aged woman in the southern officer’s chair replied indulgently.

“Respectfully, sister senior warden, just because they don’t, we don’t? And in the millennia since our founding, nobody’s ever tried to find out? You’ve got one of the most astonishingly knowledgeable biologists I’ve ever met… Not that that’s saying much, mind, they don’t exactly cluster thick on the western front…” Samuel self-deprecatingly asided, eliciting a chuckle from the seated resonants. “…And you’ve got him out teaching hand-to-hand combat!”

“The Dominus pursues his own interests.” The Arbiter chided.

“So, what? We just all mill about doing our own thing and hope that someone manages to stumble onto something useful on their own?” Samuel asked incredulously.

“Your fresh perspective is welcomed, but don’t presume to lecture those who have been studying the Logos since you were in swaddling clothes.” A resonant bearing a deacon’s staff warned.

Samuel bowed slightly. “I meant no offense, brother deacon. But you are aware that Dominus Bruce is on the brink of functional Immortality?”

“Heresy!” a number of incensed voices rang out.

“I withdraw, and do beg The God’s forgiveness.” Samuel said, ritualistically raising his hands into the sign of the Sunburst.

“Granted.” A young High Priestess spoke from the gallery with an amused smile. Samuel flashed her a wink.

“Worshipful Brethren, Revered and Honoured personages, Brethren all, I have nothing further.” Samuel concluded, bowing towards the Master, who acknowledged him with an inclination of his snowy-bearded head.

The Arbiter rose. “Do any others wish to propose for the Furtherment of the Logos and Humanity?”

An Aestenlander youth stood in the Gallery. “Lord High Arbiter, I would seek the leave of this lodge to speak.”

“Brother Quan Yu, you have leave.” The Arbiter replied. The short, wiry man made his way to the floor of the Lodge. Bowing formally to the Master, he tapped his chin in thought, surveying the gathered resonants.

“I fear Brother Samuel has stolen much of my thunder, I should have spoken with him earlier!” Quan Yu said abashedly. A few groans mixed with chuckles spread throughout the lodge.

“Apologies Brother!” Samuel called from the gallery. The Aestenlander dismissed them with a wave and a grin.

“I would present an anomaly to the Lodge, if the Master permits?” Quan Yu enquired. The Master’s elderly face furrowed in puzzlement.

“You have leave, brother… And my interest.” The master replied in a querulous voice.

“Thank you, my Master. Brethren, please tell me if you recognise this…” Quan Yu said, casting a series of glyphs into the air. A floating image of a technical diagram appeared before the assembled resonants.

“Et ees a plan for a shard-rifle.” Jacques answered near instantly.

“And you are an experienced weaponsmith, then, Brother Jacques?” Quan Yu enquired

The Orleansian Continental frowned slightly, stroking at his golden moustache. “No, but ees clearly obvious!” he said in slight exasperation.

“Very well, then please tell me if you recognise this…” Quan Yu cast a second series of glyphs, and a second diagram appeared next to the first.

“Now I ‘ahve no idea what zat is.” Jacques admitted.

“Would you believe me if I told you that it’s the same image, merely translated from resonant glyphs into normal writing?” Quan Yu asked. Gasps of amazement sounded throughout the lodge.

“Dat is not possible!” Hawa cried from the galleries, his dark-skinned face set in an expression of incredulous shock.

“On the Contrary, brother Hawa. I put it to the Lodge that such is not only possible, but has been an unknown mainstay of resonants since our founding, one we have grown too hidebound to bother exploring to its full potential. Exploring along a different route. Those of you who have experience with major infrastructure or engineering projects, did you ever think to share your plans with the non-resonant engineers?”

“They couldn’t make ‘eads or tails of ‘em!” Harold exclaimed.

“And why not?”

Harold frowned in thought. “Well they ain’t resonant, innit?”

“It doesn’t strike you as odd, Brother Harold, that the engineers of Manchester, who managed to construct the Grand Clocktower, couldn’t understand a simple schematic?”

Harold made to answer, before sitting back, confused. Quan Yu turned from him and addressed the rest of the lodge.

“Brethren, I took the liberty of testing my theory. I wrote to my father, and in the letter I enclosed a very simple schematic relating to a water-wheel within the bounds of our barony. A Water wheel he himself was intimately involved in implementing. Brethren, he had no idea what he was looking at!”

Murmurs of confusion sounded throughout the lodge, Quan Yu held up his hands for silence.

“Brethren, I would put it to you thus. It would seem that the process of awakening has made modifications to our minds. Whenever we describe or outline something technical, we subconsciously revert to resonant glyphs. Glyphs that only a wielder of the Logos is able to interpret, but that any resonant, regardless of their experience in the field, can understand!”

“The Anomaly is noted, brother, but what should we make of it?” The junior warden asked with a furrowed brow.

“Brother Junior warden, it means that we may have accidentally discovered the true purpose behind resonance.”

“Resonance was born by Man to fight Demons and stem the rage of God-Before-Tyris, everybody knows that!” A resonant from the gallery called scornfully. Quan Yu held up a finger.

“Ah! But what if our ability to manipulate reality was simply a happy accident? Think on it, a system by which any person could understand the entire depth and breadth of human knowledge at a glance. One person with Resonance could in theory, re-create human knowledge from the brink of extinction, regardless of how long that knowledge had remained buried. A flawless method of preserving technology throughout the ages, so long as the capacity for resonance remained.”

“Blasphemy!” The resonant in the galleries cried in denunciation.

“Challenge.” Another replied. “Speculation on the motivations of the denizens of the Antient Worlde does not call the Pax or the doctrines of Holy Tyris into question.”

“Seconded, your denunciation is without merit.” A High Priestess confirmed. Quan Yu acknowledged his acquittal of the denunciation with a slight bow to the High Priestess.

“So, clearly, in putting the capacity for resonance within Humanity, something was… Changed within us.” Quan Yu continued.

“Have a care brother, you edge towards something that the zealous amongst us may find actual cause to denounce you for.” The same High Priestess warned.

“You know it does make a perverse kind of sense…” A deacon mused. “…Especially since The Holy Doctrines of Eternal Tyris state quite clearly that the Pax Deus was formed in an attempt to avert mutual extinction. It’s not without merit to think that the humans of the Antient Worlde may not have already arrived at the same conclusion.”

“So, though I tread with humility and trembling at my proximity to blasphemy, I would second brother Samuel’s suggestion that further study be made into the common factors present in a successful Resonant candidate.” Quan Yu concluded.

“You’re talking about a massive statistical analysis.” The senior warden answered, a finger on her lips in thought.

“Surely the Mathematicians and Cogitators of Magesterium must have some desire to calculate something beyond economic patterns.” Quan Yu urged with a slight grin.

“I will make the request of my fellow Mistresses of the Bloodlines, though I make no promises in regard to their co-operation.” The senior warden acceded.

“I ask for nothing more. Worshipful Brethren, Honoured and Revered attendees, Brethren all, I have nothing further.” Quan Yu bowed again to the master, before resuming his seat.

The Master rapped his gavel upon the arm of his chair, leaning over to murmur to the Arbiter. Nodding, the Arbiter rose. “Brethren, it is the Master’s wish that all assembled retire, and the principal officers and deacons remain to discuss matters in further detail.”

“Looks like it’s something, at least.” Samuel murmured to the Aestenlander. Quan Yu nodded.

“I doubt it will come to much.” Quan Yu replied with a wry grin. “It’s all too difficult, and to be honest, there are times where I think that our more influential members like sitting here in the lodge like the magi of legend, poring over esoteric wisdom and occasionally wowing the commoners with parlour tricks.”

“Zat is an eenteresting perspective, considering your background.” Jacques remarked, leaning in to the conversation.

“What, because I’m an Aestenlander? Don’t forget, continental, the Aestenlands might be rigid with our traditions, but we’ve produced the finest cogitators, mathematicians and masters of the sciences for centuries. If there’s one thing we don’t do, it’s ignore new data.” Quan Yu shot back.

“Forgive me, zat was rude of me.” Jacques said, raising his hands placatingly. Quan Yu nodded in acceptance.

“Well, we have to get out of here… What do you say we actually get out of here though?” Ansgar rumbled.

“Ow’dya mean, chuckles?” Harold quipped.

“Stop calling me that. And I mean, I’m sick of staring at tomes and peaceful pathways and all this blasted serenity. Let’s go find some life.” The big Nordenlander replied.

“It is a big city.” Samuel admitted.

“Ees a bit rough in places, no?” Jacques mused.

“What could give trouble to a group of resonants? I don’t recall any warnings about a flight of dragons anywhere near de city.” Hawa laughed.

“He might be a Suudenlander, but he’s not slow.” Quan Yu jested, his almond eyes alight.

“All of them? Surely you don’t mean…” Jessie began.

“Yes Jess, all of them. Every single Taurean of child-bearing age in our herd is pregnant to him.” A black-haired Taurean said, shifting her own bulk in the carriage.

“Seriously Mel, One bull?” Jessie gasped incredulously.

“He’s assertive. And honestly, don’t play the innocent. When a bull’s in rut, you don’t get a choice. It’s like your body has a mind of its own. You know the effect they have.”

“Mother’s supposed to be controlling him…” Jessie began, before turning to a group of nulls bearing supplies “No, put those on the top, the weight will crush them otherwise.”

Mel chuckled. “Your payment for stablemastering here is a little ludicrous… What did you do Jess? Or should that be who?”

“None of your business.” Jessie replied with a slight smile. Mel laughed knowingly and Jessie joined in, relishing in the secret joke with her sister.

“Did I miss something ladies?” Charles asked, descending the stairs to the lower keep.

“Oh! Milord!” Jessie said, smiling girlishly as she saw him. “Mel, this is The Lord Baron Charles of House Caladon. Milord, this is my sister Melissa, Quartermaster of our Herd.”

“Madam.” Charles replied politely.

“I pray you will forgive me sire if I do not rise, I am somewhat ungainly at present.” Mel said apologetically, patting her swollen belly.

Charles gave a genuine smile. “Congratulations, Madam! I’ll drink to her health.”

“I thank your Lordship for the well-wishes. And you have our sympathies for the recent passing of your Lord Father.” Mel offered.

“Thank you Madam, he was well loved by many.” Charles said soberly.

A harsh bellow sounded from near the van of the Taurean caravan. Nulls moved quickly to secure the last items.

“Hell and Night. I guess he’s bored…” Mel said resignedly.

“By Maou, you brought him here?!” Jessie asked incredulously.

“It wasn’t a matter of let, Jess. Like I told you before, he’s insistent. If I didn’t know better I’d say he’s almost like the ones in the stories, before Maou made them submit to the Matriarchs.” Mel apologised. “Everything should be fine if we leave before…”

“JESSIE!” A deep, harsh bellow sounded, and the sound of thudding hooves on the dirt and stone became louder as a massively muscled figure approached them.

“Tyris be Glorified. What are you feeding him?” Charles remarked as the bull approached.

“Charles, you need to go, now.” Jessie insisted. Charles tsked slightly at her, his stance relaxed.

“Chamberlain, in company you should address me as My Lord or Sire.” He said, giving her a slight wink.

“This really isn’t funny, he might…” She urged, as the bull strode up to her. Easily seven feet in height, his barrel-like body eclipsed the other Taurean Mamono. A pair of impressive horns stood out from the sides of his thick, flat-featured head, and his powerful digitigrade legs ended in large hooves which pawed at the ground in agitation.

“You come now, bear daughters for Herd.” The Bull ordered. Jessie’s eyes flashed fire.

“You don’t order me, little brother.” Jessie barked back, pointing a finger up at his brutish features.

“Sister, Mate. Not matter, Herd mine. You come.” The bull grumbled, its deep voice brooking no disagreement.

“This one speaks, interesting…” Charles mused.

“Who is human?” The bull roared, fixing Charles with a malevolent glare.

“Baron Charles, Lord of these lands. It’s me you have to thank for your current wealth, old boy.” Charles replied evenly.

“Hnnh…” the bull snorted. “Am thinking could have taken… Maybe I kill human… Maybe I be Lord.”

“Oh, he threatens me, in my own House… Alright, well it’s clear you haven’t been taught manners in far too long…” Charles drawled, stripping off his outer coat, his hairy chest visible in the ‘V’ of the simple shirt he wore beneath it. Stepping out into the lower courtyard, he looked around at the house militia who were pouring in.

“Good work lads, but this one’s mine…” Charles drawled, spreading his arms at the bull and fixing him with a mocking smile. “Assuming of course, that blockhead there has the stones to make good on his threa…”

The Bull roared and charged at Charles, who expertly sidestepped the charge, kicking viciously at the ankle of the Bull as it passed. The bull stumbled, turning slightly, and Charles coshed it behind the ear with a vicious overhand right. The bull’s legs went out from under it, and the thud as it hit the ground rang throughout the courtyard.

Charles calmly sat on the back of the groaning bull, drawing a knife from his belt with one hand, and reaching back and around with his other, gripping something beneath the bull’s loincloth. Playing the knife in front of the bull’s glazed eyes, he whistled slightly.

“Come on, wakey wakey.” The bull began to struggle and Charles squeezed. With a yelp, the bull froze.

“As you’ve noticed, I’ve got you by something you hold very dear. This is what you’re going to do. You’re going to get up, you’re going to get on one of those carriages, and you’re going to be as meek as a Kikimora all the way back to your herd. Then you’re going to apologise to your Matriarch for being such a shit. If I hear that you’ve so much as belched in a way that displeases her, I’m going to find you, and there will be one more Null in her herd. Understood?”

The bull struggled again, and Charles squeezed again, shifting the grip on his knife so the point played in front of a bulging eyeball.

“I can always make it a blind null… the options are so varied…” Charles drawled.

“P-please…” the bull lowed pitifully

“There’s a good boy. Now get the fuck out of my House.” Charles said, coshing the bull on the back of the head with the pommel for good measure.

Standing, he watched with spread feet as the cowed bull shuffled to one of the carriages, climbing atop it with head bowed and back slumped. As the caravan began to move, a militiaman began a chant.

“Beast-mas-ter! Beast-mas-ter!”

The chant spread and before long, the lower keep rang with the cry. “BEAST-MAS-TER! BEAST-MAS-TER!”

“Guess it beats ‘Beast Whisperer” Charles grumbled to himself, before raising his voice above the chanting guards. “ALRIGHT! CAN IT! To your posts and duties, gentlemen, or I’ll give you the same!”

A wordless cheer met his threat as the guards and militiamen dispersed.

“M-My Lord! How…” Jessie began, a weird expression on her face.

“I might have had pistols, and I might have pissed myself, but I did fight off that bear-kin bull, remember?” Charles jibed with a grin.

“My Lord, you need to come with me, right now.” Jessie said urgently, seizing him by the wrist and dragging him towards a disused storeroom in the lower keep.

“Sure Jess, just slow down, whatever’s gotten into y…” He was silenced as Jessie slammed the door of the storeroom and almost pounced on him, pressing her lips to his with animal lust.

“Jess! What’s gotten into you?” Charles asked breathlessly. Jessie did not answer, only dropped to her knees, pulling his pants down roughly and taking his flaccid length into her mouth, moaning as she fervently worked him to arousal. When he stood gasping and hard within her mouth, she released his member with a sucking pop, drawing her broad tongue up his length, her expression salacious. Stepping from him, she drew her own short leggings down, stepping a leg out from under them. Her tail flipped her Chamberlain’s garb up, revealing her ample, rounded backside.

Jessie bent over against the wall, looking over her shoulder at him. “Take me, Master.” She murmured sultrily.

“Fucked if you have to ask me twice…” Charles muttered, eagerly crossing to her and burying himself to the hilt in her dripping womanhood. Jessie lowed with exquisite pleasure as he worked within her. Her moans were punctuated by begging requests. “Harder Master, Deeper Master!”

“Jessie!” Charles gasped, “I’m gonna…”

“Yes! Give it to me. Oh Master! Give it aaaalllllllll!” Jessie near-howled as she climaxed. Charles’s legs shook as he erupted within her. They stood there, gasping, body to body, both leaning against the ancient stonework for support as they recovered.

“Well… That was different.” Charles gasped.

“I-I’m sorry Charles…” Jessie murmured, a flush of embarrassment on her cheeks.

“Sorry for what? Sure it’s not the ideal location and we weren’t exactly discrete… Hang it Jess, what just happened?”

“Y-you dominated a Bull. Right now every Mamono who saw that in the courtyard is likely masturbating furiously. That’s kinda what Mel was talking about. We are still what we are, my love. We hold a lot back but when you do something like that…” Jessie made a low grunt and pushed back against his softening length with the memory.

”As Sam likes to say, nature will out.” Charles chuckled slightly.

“You don’t mind? I didn’t… hurt you or anything?” Jessie queried, twisting her shoulders to look at him, still unwilling to break the contact of their lower bodies.

“If it’s you love, feel free as oft and plentifully as you like. Let’s try for better surrounds next time though… And I don’t know that you need to call me ‘Master’ every time.” Charles drawled, kissing the back of her neck.

Jessie broke their contact, turning to face him with a naughty grin. “I’ll save it for special occasions then.” She leaned into him, sliding her arms around his neck. “Love you.” She whispered.

“Love you too.” Charles murmured, bending to her kiss.

They were singing.

Samuel felt it slightly odd that they were singing, particularly since he didn’t know the words precisely. He took a deep breath, before recognising the smell in the air.

“Oi! How’d we end up at th’docks?” He slurred

“Blame the Aestenlander. He said this way to fun.” Ansgar answered, dropping his arm about the shoulders of the smaller, black haired Quan Yu.

“And shhhh! Listen!” The short man said insistently.

“Dey singin’ too over dere!” Hawa bellowed.

“Shhhhh. You’re loud when you’re drunk.” Samuel chided.

You’re drunk.” Hawa rejoined.

“You know what? I think you’re right, sir. And fuck it, it’s beautiful.” Samuel declared, holding a hand in the air.

“I’ll remind you of that tomorrow” Ansgar mocked.

“That’s tomorrow-Samuel’s problem.”

“I em going home.” Jacques announced suddenly.

“Y’orright?” Samuel asked.

“I hef drunk too much wine. I must take a piss… Possibly throw up.” The continental mused.

“Well stumble safe.” Ansgar offered.

Jacques raised his hand in farewell, stumbling back up the way they came.

“He’s going to go harass that delegation with Harry.” Quan Yu whispered conspiratorially.

The remaining resonants laughed, heading towards the tavern from which the raucous singing was emanating. As they entered, they saw tables of workmen and sailors, a few Mamono dotted here and there.

“Barkeep, a round on de house!” Hawa called grandiosely

“You what?” The bartender asked in disapproval.

“It’s a round FOR the house, you dark bastard.” Samuel laughed as the suudenlander’s face twisted in confusion.

“Right away sirs!” The barkeep assured, his manner changing instantly as the resonant slapped a Magisterium writ on the counter. The largesse did not go unnoticed, and they rapidly found themselves in the good graces of the lower-class patrons, for whom a free drink was not to be sniffed at.

“D’you think the Lodge’ll get pissed at us getting pissed on them?” Samuel enquired

“You act like this is the first time we’ve needed to blow off steam. This shit is budgeted, round-eye.” Quan Yu mocked. “Plus, it does no harm to spread a little wealth now and then. Keeps the economy mobile… Or… Something.”

“LORD SQUID-CRUSHER!” A voice sounded from the far side of the tavern.

“Well if that isn’t Captain Fuckin’ Arin!” Samuel cried in happy surprise. “Thought you would have been well away by now!”

“Had an old friend who convinced me to stay a while. The contract for the cargo helped too!” Arin tipped his tricorn hat to the young noble as he navigated the press of bodies in the loud taproom. “Got a table, bring your friends.”

Samuel followed the captain towards his table, pausing briefly as he recognised the other parties present.

“Dominus.” He said politely. The Australian frowned, eyes widening as recognition struck him.

“Fuck off… Arin you mean to tell me the Westerland cunt’s the squid-crusher?” Bruce said in disbelief.

“No word of a lie Bruce. Popped her head like a ripe zit. Tell your girls to shove the fuck over.” Arin replied.

“Well, they’re buying, so we won’t argue!” Bruce roared, giving the ogre closest to him a shove. Ulat jostled back with an elbow and a grin, but moved over so the four youths could sit. An arachne skittered across the wall, placing a large tray of foaming mugs atop the table with a wink.

“I might be misremembering, but isn’t it tradition for someone to be pinching her butt and stashing a coin in her bodice?” Quan Yu slurred.

“I’m not wearing a bodice, and you’d better have a free evening if you plan on pinching anything, cutie.” The Arachne drawled in response.

“Remember de Pax you drunk.” Hawa joshed, elbowing Quan Yu. The Arachne skittered up the wall, blowing a kiss to the aestenlander as she departed. Samuel and the others took seats and tankards, clanking them together in toast. Samuel looked to his right, straight into the toothy grin of Raru, the Ogre he had bested in Bruce’s training.

“No hard feelings then, Raru?” Samuel offered.

“Raru wishes she was feeling something hard after Wilder-man’s performance…” The ogre replied coquettishly.

“Are you flirting with me, madam?”

“Raru not sure, Is it working?”

Samuel stammered slightly, not sure how to answer.

“Wilder-Man is blushing!” the ogre roared in amusement.

“Leave off, Raru. Poor bugger’s probably never known a woman who wasn’t part of the Continuance rite.” Bruce ordered. Raru turned back to her drink reluctantly.

“I’ll have you know House Caladon is renowned for the virility of its sons!” Samuel drunkenly protested.

“Yeah, but I’m right, aren’t I? You’ve never just… fucked. Fucked because you felt like it, fucked because the woman before you sparked a fire in your loins that only burying yourself to the hilt in her could quench.”

“I… Well… I’m pretty sure that’s Blasphemy.” Samuel offered lamely.

“Then denounce me properly and we’ll go outside and fight about it, cunt.” Bruce smiled in reply.

“No fear, Dominus, I like my teeth in my head.” Samuel laughed. Bruce clanked his tankard against Samuel’s.

“You struck me as a clever cunt, glad to see I’m not to be disappointed.” Bruce said simply.

“Fucking hell Bruce. That’s the nicest thing I think I’ve ever heard you say about anyone.” Captain Arin said mockingly.

“Fuck off, squid-shagger.”

“Hey! I like Ruby!” Samuel objected.

Arin grasped Samuel’s shoulder. “So does he. It’s an Austral thing. The Hells themselves can’t match what that blasted island coughs up by accident, so they tend to be a bit backwards with their feelings.”

“Oi. The Australs are fucking glorious!” Bruce snarled.

“Oh yeah? What about that thing you were telling me about the other day?” Arin rejoined.

“Oh, the Funnel-webs? They’re not so bad.”

“Not so bad!” Arin echoed incredulously “Think the nice young spider who served our drinks. Double her size, give her fangs that can punch through full plate and venom so potent you’re dead before you hit the deck. Now give her the attitude of an Ambassador on her Menses and a fear of absolutely nothing under Tyris’s warming sun.”

“Sounds Hellish.” Ansgar murmured, nudging Hawa, who had slumped into his chair and was starting to snore.

“Nah, you just have to know where to tickle ‘em.” Bruce replied.

“Where did Quan Yu go?” Samuel murmured, looking around.

“Ulat did not see him talking to the spider. Ulat did not see the spider take him upstairs.” The ogre replied simply.

“We need to work on your lying, Ulat.” Bruce grunted.

“I didn’t see shit, I don’t know shit, tell him to sing out if he gets stuck… no pun intended.” Ansgar said with a grunt, slinging the half-conscious Hawa’s arm over his shoulder. “I’m taking the darkie home before he gets robbed.”

“Good move.” Arin agreed. The cacophony around them was growing apace as the patrons became more and more inebriated. A few isolated fights had broken out here and there, rapidly shepherded outside.

“NYAAAA! Put Yumi down!” a voice rang out across the din.

“Tyris FUCK, what’s she doing here?” Samuel asked incredulously, pushing his chair back and stumbling towards the cry.

“You alright westerlander?” Bruce called.

“If I accidentally set the place on fire, save as many as you can.” Samuel slurred with drunken bravado.

“Yeh, orright.” The Australian replied nonchalantly, taking another draught of his drink.

Samuel pushed through the milling bodies, coming to a table where a pair of sailors was pawing at a struggling Yumi, the neko’s tail bottlebrushing with agitation.

“Release the Emmis… Ummiser… Put the fuckin’ kitty down.” Samuel demanded.

“Don’t worry, little lord, you’ll get your shot at ‘er once we’ve had our fun.” One of the sailors snarled lecherously.

“Little Lord? LITTLE LORD?!” Samuel echoed, his umbrage rising. Casting a resonant glyph, he flung the sailor pawing at Yumi across the room. The catgirl ran to him, clinging to his arm and trembling.

“Arin! These your lads?” Samuel yelled.

“Don’t care if they are, Sam, mine should know better.” Came the reply.

“Right.” Samuel straightened his clothes. “You have molested the person of a fuckin’ important representative of the Council of Matriarchs. I can skin you now, or they can skin you later.”

“Mercy My Lord!” the second sailor squeaked, dropping to his knees.

“Not my call. I’ll let her decide your fate once I’ve gotten her back to the embassy.” Samuel drawled, pressing a finger into the chest of the trembling sailor. “I would start running now, if I were you. The Lilim aren’t known for their forgiving natures.”

A generalized exodus from the tavern began, as sailors and workmen hurried to be anywhere else but there.

“Goodman, you still have that writ?” Samuel asked the bartender.

“Yes, My Lord.” The Bartender answered with a tremor of nervousness in his voice.

“Make sure to note the damages caused by that twat falling onto your table.” Samuel gestured to where the sailor he had flung lay groaning in the wreckage of broken furniture.

“With a will, My Lord!” The Bartender replied eagerly.

“Now. Your grace. I can’t take you back to the embassy like this, Ambassador Kyla and the Mamono delegation will take turns flogging me raw.” Samuel said to the neko, stroking his cheek in thought.

“I guess there’s nothing for it. You’ll have to come with me…”

“Yumi will come with you, nyaa.” The catgirl said demurely, still clinging to his arm…

“…And then the entire thing just fell over!” Yumi crowed as they entered Samuel’s quarters. Samuel laughed, grabbing a pitcher of water and drinking deeply. He offered it to Yumi who shook her head.

“Now what were you doing there?” Samuel asked.

“I don’t know, I’m a kitty!” Yumi said with wide eyed vapidness.

“You’re lying.” Samuel said, a slow smile creeping across his face.

“Why you treat Yumi so mean by saying that?” Yumi pouted.

“Because you haven’t said ‘nyaa’ in the last half an hour.” Samuel rejoined simply.

Yumi made to answer, and then smiled smugly. “Caught.” She drawled.

Samuel watched, dumbfounded, as the girlish form of the catgirl swelled. Her delicate hands grew furred as they transmuted into paws, and the chestnut of her hair and ears became a vibrant amethyst, streaked with black stripes.

“You’re a clever one for picking up on it, I only had to drop the hint half a million times since arriving in Magisterium” Yumi drawled, her face set in a smirk.

“C-Cheshire!” Samuel gasped.

“Oh, we’re still that well known? I’m flattered.” Yumi gushed, pouncing at Samuel, who staggered back onto the bed. “And as to what was I doing there? Following you, of course.”

“Well you kinda fucked up ending up getting pawed by that sailor.” Samuel retorted, pushing himself up. Yumi laughed.

“What better way to make sure you’d take me out of there? Alone. With a perfect excuse as to why and to where.” Yumi murmured, kneading at his chest with her paws. Samuel pushed them away.

“I mourned my father with you… Was that a game too?” He snarled.

“No. I wouldn’t play with something that important, give me some credit.” Yumi seemed to fade out of existence, and Samuel scanned the room before he felt her arms slide around his shoulders from behind him.

“The Tanuki at Caladon? My agent. I had to know if you were worth the trouble…” She whispered, a rough tongue flicking at his earlobe.

“So you lie to me, and have me raped in my own house… Whatever you’re selling you’re doing a pretty piss-poor job of it, Yumi.” Samuel grated, trying to pull away from her embrace. Yumi shimmered from existence again, before rematerializing above him, landing atop him and driving him back onto the bed.

“Then let me be frank. I want you, Samuel. I want you like I’ve never wanted a man in my life. Even with the risk of a brother with so much angel in him I’m surprised it isn’t falling from his ears. Even with a power which could kill me in an instant… But you haven’t… Why haven’t you?” She purred, nuzzling into him.

“I… I don’t know…” Samuel gasped

“I do. All your life, all you’ve desired is to be needed. That’s why you threw yourself at duty. That’s why you abandoned everything to come to Magisterium after Awakening to Resonance. Well here it is, Samuel. I want you. I need you…”

Samuel’s breath was quickening… the strange feeling in his chest began to swell… As if his body were not his own, he saw his hands reach up and wrap around the Cheshire above him. He felt himself draw her to him, felt his lips crush to hers roughly. Felt himself clumsily strip his clothing as Yumi eagerly did the same.

“Say it again.” Samuel demanded.

“I need you.” Yumi whispered, her eyes lustful.

Samuel fervently clove to her once more, his hands exploring her body, cupping her pert breasts, tracing her lightly furred thighs, the sensation of her paws on his back, her mouth gasping at his ear as his questing fingers found her tenderness. A cry as he entered her, their panting as their bodies moved together, the sweetness of shared kisses, her harsh yowl and the hot, beautiful pain of her claws on his back as she climaxed.

“Come for me, Samuel” She urged.

Samuel felt the swelling in his loins, and cried out as he erupted within her, collapsing into her as the world fell away…

…Samuel awoke with a groan. Opening his eyes, he looked into Yumi’s smirking features.

“Morning sleepyhead.” She drawled. Samuel gave a slight smile, before sitting up with a startled oath.

Instead of the expected furnishings of his room, he found himself lying on thick moss. The twilight around him revealed alien foliage which seemed to glow with a strange, lurid light.

“Where are we?” He gasped.

“When I said I wanted you, I wasn’t telling you the whole truth. I didn’t just need you for me… Mother needs you too…” Yumi admitted, slightly guiltily.

“You don’t mean…” Samuel gulped.

“Yes, my dear Sam. We are in a forest on the outskirts of Pandemonium.” Yumi slid her paws about him, holding him gently to her.

“Welcome to Hell.”

“When you said you were going to explain things, this was not the location I was expecting.” Lloyd said, looking at Sister Magda with slight suspicion.

“If you didn’t know what I was going to tell you, how did you know where I would take you?” Sister Magda answered nebulously.

“Still, the Abbey of Blessed Innocence?” Lloyd asked incredulously.

“It all comes to bear, my boy.”

“Must you? I’m a grown man, and have been for quite a few years now.” Lloyd sighed with irritation. Magda turned to study him.

“I think sometimes I forget that, Lloyd. You must understand I’ve been very… Close with House Caladon for more years than I care to number.”

“Ah yes. One day I’ll get a straight answer out of you as to how that Lilim was so intimate with Father.” Lloyd rejoined with a slight smirk. Magda sighed slightly.

“The adventures of a misspent youth. I was very fond of your father, you understand. He and I experienced many things together… You did know he was being groomed for a Commandant’s position in the Faith Militant before his father abdicated Caladon in his favour, don’t you?”

Lloyd nodded. “It was mentioned, once or twice, I get the feeling he didn’t care for military life.”

Magda nodded. “He had the heart of a Waylander. Always wanting to know what lay over the next hill.”

Lloyd chuckled slightly. “He did always insist on going out with the border patrols… Forgive me if I’m being too forward, but did you and him ever….”

“Continuance? Oh more often than I can count.” Sister Magda replied nonchalantly. “In fact, I could even be your mother.”

Lloyd choked a little at that.

“I’m not, silly boy. I wouldn’t skirt blasphemy if it was a possibility. I would have borne his children gladly, but I fear his seed never quickened within me.” Magda sighed, her eyes clouded with nostalgia. “But enough of the past.”

Pushing open the doors, she led Lloyd into the bright hallways of the Abbey, one of the communal nurseries where human children were raised. A robed priestess saw them and approached, bowing respectfully.

“Your Reverences, how can we be of service?”

“Sister Marie, this is Lloyd, Lord of the Order of Dumat.”

Sister Marie’s eyes widened, yet there was none of the fear he had seen in the eyes of others who recognised the title. “Your Worship!” She gushed. “You’ve come to see Her then?”

“Her?” Lloyd echoed in confusion.

“Yes, we are.” Sister Magda said simply. Sister Marie bowed again

“Please, follow me.” She entreated.

Lloyd followed Magda and Marie to a grassy courtyard, loud with the babble of playing children.

“Amaranth” Sister Marie called, “come here child”

“Yes Mother!” A piping voice replied, and a platinum-blonde girl separated herself from a giggling group, hurrying over to the priestess, who knelt to hug the girl warmly.

“Amaranth, this is Sister Superior Magda, and Lloyd, Lord of the Order of Dumat.” Sister Marie said gently. Amaranth took the High Priestesses hands in her own, kissing her palms.

“I am glad to meet you, Mother.” She said, her voice high and musical.

“Bless you child.” Sister Magda said warmly. Amaranth turned to look at Lloyd with a slightly puzzled expression. Lloyd’s breath caught as he saw her golden eyes.

“M-My Lord… Is that right?” She asked, looking to the priestesses.

“It will serve, dearest.” Sister Marie said fondly. “Nobody expects you to be all across protocol at your age.”

“Still, I have to learn.” Amaranth replied seriously.

“You will dear, not to worry. Enjoy being a child for now.” Sister Magda entreated, drawing Lloyd slightly aside.

“S-She’s mine…” Lloyd whispered. Sister Magda nodded.

“Yes, dear boy. That is your daughter.”

Lloyd turned again to the girl-child, who seemingly on instinct, had turned from Sister Marie to look at him once again.

“Amaranth…” he said softly, his voice choked with emotion. The little girl’s smile was like the rising sun, as she sprinted over to him, throwing her arms about his neck warmly.

“I was wondering how long it would take for you to recognize me, father.” She whispered into his ear.

“How did you know?” He asked, gently removing her arms from his neck and holding her shoulders.

“The Shining One told me.” She answered simply. “He said that Lord Dumat would come to the Abbey, and that he was my father. That he would keep me safe until it was time.”

“Time? Time for what?” Lloyd said in confusion.

“I don’t know yet, He said it’s not time to know, but that I should be a good girl and have fun until it is.” Amaranth replied, her golden eyes innocent and wide. “Will you though, father? Will you keep me safe?”

“As Tyris gives me strength, nothing will harm you so long as I draw breath.” Lloyd gasped, drawing the girl to him, tears streaming down his cheeks.

Lloyd spent some small time with Amaranth, apart from the other children, which she took good-naturedly. “The others will get jealous. Most of them will never get to meet their fathers.” She said simply.

A bell sounded and Amaranth sprung from his lap, where they had been having a deep discussion about dandelions.

“It’s time for prayers. I will see you again soon, I hope!” She crowed, leaning in to kiss him softly on the cheek. “Goodbye father!”

“Goodbye Amaranth… Goodbye…” Lloyd replied, his voice choking once again as she ran to join the other children.

Sister Magda walked over to him, putting a gentle hand upon his shoulder.

“Thank you… You have given me a greater treasure than any man dreams of… But why? I still don’t understand…” Lloyd began, looking up at her from where he sat on the lush grass.

“You know your scriptures, dear boy. What is the first Canticle of the Ascension?”

“And Yea, The God was brought low, and the Smoke of Her Burning did offer bitter counterpart to the laments of The Heaven’s Chorus.” Lloyd answered instinctively.

“God-before-Tyris fell… She was diminished, but she did not die.” Sister Magda said softly. “She fell to earth… and survived!

“What…” Lloyd gasped.

“I am about to reveal to you the greatest treasure and the greatest secret of Mankind, Lloyd. Kindly shut up.” Sister Magda chided. “She took a man to her. A good and kindly man, lost, I’m sorry to say, to the fickle winds of history. She was, we like to believe, happy, and bore four children to him. Two sons, Dumat and Azrael, and two daughters, Michelle and Gabriella. Their line restored the lineage of Heroes, great and mighty warriors of Humanity in the turbulent first years of The Pax.”

“The Order of Dumat then…” Lloyd began.

“Yes. You can command Angels not because of some ritual and trial, but because you, dear boy, share the direct bloodline of a God. Do you see now why we were so eager to breed you? The line always breeds true, but sparsely. It’s rare for more than a couple of children to be born of a single scion.”

“And Amaranth…”

“Will be the next Bride of Tyris.” Magda offered, squeezing his shoulder. “Tyris is the ‘Shining One’ that is speaking to her. She will take the Logos, and join the other descendants of God-Before-Tyris in service to the One True God.”

“Why then do I hold the Mantle of Dumat?” Lloyd asked incredulously.

“My dear boy… Is it not the tradition of marriage that the bride is given to the bridegroom by her father? It would not do well for you to be incinerated when you come into the presence of The God.”

“This is the last of them then?” Charles asked, a weary expression on his face. The centaur captain removed her helm, long golden hair flowing behind her as she gestured to the bound men who kneeled outside the walls of Caladon Keep.

“The last of them, my master. Led us a merry chase, they did.”

“Having Mamono bring us in, Charles, you truly are perverse…” A young landholder cursed, struggling against his bonds.

“I would not exhaust the good and loyal Militia of Caladon in pursuit of traitors, Benjamin.” Charles rebutted simply. “And I am done with speeches and remonstrations. Crucify them.”

The bound men began to scream and beg for mercy as impassionate guardsmen dragged them off one at a time to be nailed to sturdy crossbeams.

“Crucifixion? Really? The way I heard tell you were going to flay them and roast them over a slow fire.” The centaur rebutted, oblivious to the screaming of the men as spikes were driven through their wrists.

“It’s the nastiest thing The Pax will allow for treason, Shireen, and I’ll be honest, a lot nastier than I can stomach easily.” Charles replied.

“You’re too gentle, master. Always have been.” Shireen rejoined, before sidestepping to lower her head next to his.

“Probably what Hathor sees in you” She whispered. Charles turned his head in surprise

“You?” He asked. Shireen nodded, holding two fingers across her left breast.

“Justice is my Guide.” She intoned.

Charles could not help but laugh. “A conspiriacy amidst my house, I think I will spend an evening in thanksgiving to Tyris that it’s not against me.”

“Oh… I can think of a worthier recipient…” Shireen murmured nebulously, her shod hooves clopping as she walked next to him.

“Mmm… I wish She had told me exactly what She’s after. I don’t think it ends with that sewage I used to call a brother.”

“Ammit will reveal Her will in due time.” Shirreen said assuringly as they crossed into the lower keep. “Everything in its own…. What in Maou’s name is going on here!?”

Centaurs were lounging around the lower courtyard in a state of blissful ecstasy, dreamy smiles on their faces. Shireen cantered over to the nearest, grabbing her by the arm.

“By Maou you’d better explain why you look like you’ve just had a Stallion servicing you.” She grated.

“Hmmm? Oh! Captain!” The centaur shook off her delirium and saluted. “Nothing like that, Ma’am, it’s just… The new stablemaster…”

“Hans?” Charles exclaimed. He had hired the unassuming lad from a pool of townsfolk who had approached the keep looking for work. Jessie had vetted him and seemed confident in his ability.

“Yes, My Lord.” The centaur confirmed, bobbing her head with a dopey grin. “You wouldn’t believe the things that man can do with a curry comb…”

“Well well well…” Shireen mused, a dreamy smile on her face.

“I think we’d best stop in on my new stablemaster… After all, no sense you missing out, Captain.” Charles drawled. Shireen blushed, spluttering slightly.

“I-it’s not that I want anything like that… Don’t go getting the wrong idea!” she blustered.

“Of course not.” Charles said with a grin as they approached the stables. “Hans!” he called.

“Oh! My Lord! Thank Tyris, I don’t know what to do!” came the near-shrill voice of the new stablemaster from somewhere inside.

Charles swore, rushing inside, hearing the gait of Shireen quicken behind him. Bursting into the stables, he saw Hans sitting on the ground, the prone form of the centaur Null Dom in front of him, its humanoid upper body resting in his lap. Dom was breathing heavily, and a sheen of sweat stood out on its androgynous features.

“Dom, what happened?” Charles cried, dropping to his knees next to Hans and taking one of the Null’s hands in his own.

“It’s Dom’s time.” Shireen said, her voice thick.

“M-Master Charles?” The null whispered, its voice harsh and rattling.

“I’m here Dom, I’m here.” Charles murmured assuringly.

“Dom had a good life… Thank you…” the Null said simply

“You saved me, you saved my brother… I’ll never forget you Dom… Never.” Charles choked, voice thick with emotion.

“Dom can rest now? Dom is tired… So tired…”

“Go with Maou, little foal, and may your heart be weighed lightly. May the Sky-Horde welcome you into the endless plains.” Shireen said gently.

Dom smiled, its last breath leaving it with a rattling gurgle. Dashing the tears from her eyes, Shireen gave a whinnying cry at the centaurs milling about in the lower courtyard. At that sound, all of them looked up, all traces of dreamy bliss gone.

“Sisters! A Centaur crosses to the Sky-Horde! SCREAM TO BE HEARD!” She commanded.

As one, all the centaurs gave voice to powerful cries which echoed cacophonously from the walls. Charles could not help it, letting his own grief fuel his lungs, he too lent his voice to the ringing lament which blasted from so many voices. A fitting tribute to one sorely missed.

As the last echoes died from the ringing stones, Shireen pointed at two centaurs near her. “Have a Litter made, and have its body carried as befits one who has honoured our band.” The centaurs saluted, making to obey. Shireen turned, pointing at Hans. “You, Stablemaster, I didn’t get any of the pampering, and I find myself in need of it.”

Hans looked questioningly at Charles, who nodded encouragement. He turned to Shireen. “Of course, Captain… It’s just…”

“Just what, human?” Shireen barked.

“I-I’ve never groomed anybody as magnificent as you.” Hans murmured, looking at Shireen with awe.

“Oh I like him!” Shireen drawled aside to Charles. “Curry comb. Chop chop.” She barked, the ghost of a smile playing across her face.

Charles left the stables, shaking his head as he climbed the stairs into the inner keep. Jessie met him at the door, a worried look on her face.

“What was that?” She asked

“Dom… It… It’s gone.” Charles said.

“Oh No! The poor dear…” Jessie murmured sympathetically.

“I know Nulls don’t live that long, and I knew the time was coming, but Dom was…” Charles began.

“It was your friend. Mine too… I’ll miss it terribly.” Jessie said honestly, putting her arms around Charles and holding him close for a moment.

“Jess… I think I need to speak with Her.” Charles said, breaking their embrace reluctantly.

“Are you sure, love? Once you make the decision, there’s no turning back. She’s… somewhat strict with that.” Jessie warned, looking seriously into his eyes.

“I’m sure. Take me to Her.”

Jessie nodded, signalling to one of the Kikimora and murmuring a few instructions in a low voice. The Kikimora blanched slightly, looking askance at Charles.

“Do as she says, Mika.” Charles entreated.

“O-Of course, Master Charles… I just never thought…” Mika stammered in reply.

“And shhh… keep it hush will you?” He said with a conspiratorial wink.

“Of course Master.” Mika said assuringly, raising two fingers to her left breast. “After all, Justice is My Guide.”

“Another one? How deep does this go?” Charles asked incredulously as Jessie drew him into the servant’s passages.

“How deep, how long… There’s no values to those questions that would make sense.” Jessie answered, expertly leading him through the winding passageways. “Ammit says there was a time when Humans and Mamono worshipped Her together, but the timeframe She uses is so vastly alien… we’re talking eons, at the very least.”

“Wow… This is much more than I was expecting.” Charles replied

“You were expecting some demigod? A forgotten Lieutenant of the time before the Pax?” No my love, even Maou accepts the worship of Ammit, and I would go so far as to say that She worshipped Her also when She was only Lilith.”

“Now there’s a name you don’t hear often.” Charles quipped, brushing cobwebs from his path.

“You Humans seem to be far too eager to forget what happened before Tyris’s Ascension.” Jessie rejoined.

“Hey, I’m here, aren’t I?” Charles objected. Jessie sighed, turning to him and kissing him softly.

“Yes you are love, and I’m sorry I’m being so short. I’ll be honest with you, I’m terrified. This is the first time in countless millennia that a High Priestess of Ammit is actually bringing a human into Her presence.”

“She wanted me for a reason, right?” Charles offered. Jessie nodded, turning and pulling the hidden lever, leading into the ant tunnels.

“She did… I just wish I knew what that reason was.”

Charles made a noise of astonishment as he entered the tunnels, dimly lit with their glowing fungi. “Ants, right?”

“Well spotted love. Brown ants, they’re very shy, I don’t expect we’ll see any.”

They shuffled along the winding passageway, Charles swearing softly as he stumbled on the uneven floor.

“Tyris be good, what do Ants have against…”

“…straight lines?” Jessie quipped, “I know love, I think the same thing every time I come down here.”

Charles pulled her close, kissing her lingeringly. “Just goes to show we’re meant to be, I think.”

“Oh Charles… You’re going to kill my resolve if you keep that up…” Jessie lamented softly, kissing him briefly before reluctantly breaking his embrace and continuing on. Coming to the widening in the tunnel, she slowed, pulling him down so his head was next to hers. “There’s a guard up ahead. It should be fine as long as you’re with me, just don’t make any sudden moves.”

They walked carefuly towards the insectile door at the far side of the small cavern. The clicking growl was heard at their approach, and Jessie and Charles both saw the glowing yellow eyes staring from the darkness.

“Shhh… It’s only me…” Jessie murmured assuringly.

The growl did not let up, and the eyes seemed to shuffle closer. Charles released Jessie’s hand.

“Come on then, let’s have a look at you…” Charles entreated, moving slowly to the centre of the chamber.

A pair of brown, chitinous legs appeared first, followed by a head, bearing scintillating compound eyes in an elfin, girlish face. Facing Charles, the ant held her powerful, armor plated forearms in guard in front of her delicate humanoid torso, the right, massively hyperdeveloped and ending in a crushing pedipalp.

“Oh she is gorgeous.” Charles gushed. “Young Soldier-caste, the arm’s a dead giveaway. Jess, c’mere a sec, put your arms up in the air for me.”

Jessie did as she was bid, her face a moue of confusion as Charles brushed his own arms against hers in a weird slapping motion. Turning again to the ant, Charles moved forward slowly, twitching his right hand in a rhythmic pattern. The ant rushed towards him, and Jessie screamed… Only to see the ant running her antennae fervently down his arms, making soft chitters as she smiled.

“There’s a girl. Your queen should be very proud of you.” Charles murmured in praise, scratching at the chitin at the base of her antennae. The ant closed her eyes and leaned into the affection.

“That’s enough, girl. Don’t want you getting in trouble for being off duty now, do we?”

The ant chittered again and nodded, rubbing her antennae on Charles’s face again before skittering back into the dark. Charles moved towards the door. “Shall we love?”

Jessie looked at him nonplussed. Charles shrugged apologetically. “I’m Lord of a Barony which has the highest Mamono concentration per capita in the entire westerlands… Fun fact I discovered this morning… You’d think in all these years I’d pick up a few things.”

“You…” Jessie said, laughing with relief as they entered Ammit’s shrine. Charles gave a low whistle as he looked around.

“Take your boots off.” Jessie murmured. Charles nodded, and bent to remove his boots. Jessie walked towards the altar, kneeling before it.

Homage to you, Ammit, Mistress of Eternity, Dread Queen of Justice, whose names ar…” She began to intone.

“That won’t be necessary, Hathor.” A voice said from behind the altar. A cloaked figure moved into the candlelight, and Jessie stood, brow furrowed in puzzlement.

“I left them by the door Jess, I hope that’s alright. Who’s your frie…” His voice turned to a choked squeak and his eyes bulged as the figure raised Her leonine paws to push back the hood of her cloak, revealing the thick, red hair, crocodilian eyes, and rapacious smile of Ammit. Shaking, Jessie flung herself onto the floor, prostrating herself in a near-grovel in the presence of her Goddess. Ammit’s permanent smile broadened, as she briefly brushed Jessie’s horns with long, talon-like claws.

“Rise Hathor. Rise and serve thy Goddess.”

Jessie scrambled to her feet. “Dread Queen, I present to you Baron Charles of House Caladon.”

“I know who he is, Hathor… Was it not I who called him?”

Charles stepped forward, bowing deeply from the waist. “I admit, Divine One, it was a question I asked myself many times.”

“Well there you have it.” Ammit answered simply. “So. You are here. Why?”

“I beg your forgiveness, Divinity, but you know the answer to that better than either of us. It was your summons which brought us here.” Charles answered simply.

“Charles!” Jessie near screamed, shocked at his familiarity.

“My soul is prepared Jess, I hardly think genuflections or flowery intonations will make a lick of difference one way or the other to the scales of Ma’at.”

Ammit laughed. “You see why I find him interesting, Hathor? He knows. Without being told. It’s instinctive, his bloodline tells him his role without question. The line of Horus always did make for interesting men.”

“Forgive me Divinity, but… huh?” Charles queried.

“We’re going to die… We’re going to die…” Jessie lamented.

“Be at peace, Hathor. If I wanted a mewling supplicant there are weak-livered men aplenty in the world. I need his strength… And the strength of his blood…”

“Still not quite grasping where you’re going with this, Divine One.”

Ammit gave a snarl of frustration, rolling her eyes and gaping her mantrap jaws. “Humans…” She rubbed her temples in thought. “Horus was a great Hero of a time so far removed from yours you have not the numbers to comprehend it. Where Gods walked with Human and Mamono and ruled over both. He threw down his father’s brother, Set, the Maou of that age, and established himself as King and God. Not The God, you understand, but there was room enough in that time for Gods aplenty. Not such as now, where Tyris crowds out all who would lay claim to such title… Or so He thinks.”

“Ammit is Sovereign Goddess of the Dead.” Jessie offered in clarification.

“The last of the Great Powers of the Unseen World. Osiris, Anubis, Hades, Hel, Yama, Mictlantecuhtli, Mannanan, Aita, Samadhi… all gone… All lost to memory.” Ammit paused, and her eyes dimmed with bittersweet nostalgia.

“What happened to them?” Charles asked breathlessly.

“I ate them.” Ammit replied simply. Charles blanched in fear.

“Don’t turn into a shrinking violet now, Human.” Ammit ordered. “Make no mistake, I am The Devourer. The Great Justice. The Harrower of Souls. Through Me lies the path to the Beyond. Through Me Oblivion or Elysium, as the scales of Ma’at dictate.”

Her sheer presence beat at Charles, who struggled not to scream at the vastness of that merest glimpse of her power.

“Dread Queen of Justice, whose names are manifold, whose forms are holy…” Jessie intoned humbly.

Ammit raised a paw to stroke Jessie’s cheek gently, and the Taurean looked at the Goddess with rapt adoration.

“Their power is mine to give, and the blood of Horus has claim to it.” Ammit declared, “The question is, what would you do to receive it?”

“Divinity?” Charles queried, still slightly cowed at her display.

“Will you come unto me? Will you take me as Man, and receive the mantle of Osiris Reborn?” Ammit entreated, shrugging off her cloak and revealing her naked form beneath it.

“Jessie?” Charles asked in shock, looking at the Taurean. Jessie turned to him with agonized eyes.

“I’m sorry Charles… When I heard the Magisterium had declared you a cut branch, I did my own research. Once I found you were of the line of Horus, I had no choice. I do but obey my Goddess…” Jessie murmured humbly.

“Then we meant nothing?!” Charles snapped, momentarily forgetting Ammit’s presence.

“We meant everything Charles… I’ll always love you… even if I can’t have you anymore.” Jessie sobbed slightly, but held her demure pose before Ammit.

“Do not let my form dissuade you, Charles…” Ammit cozened. “…I can assume any form I wish…”

Her figure shifted, and in its place was a curvaceous Lamia, her iridescent patterns intricate and beautiful, her ample bust moving with her breathing.

“…Any form you wish…”

Her form shifted again, and a winged manticore stood before them, heart-shaped face set in a smug grin. Her lithe, supple body achingly sensual, barbed tail swaying, giving the glimpse of firm buttocks beneath it.

“…So tell me Charles… Would you be a God?”

Charles looked at the floor briefly, before raising his eyes to Ammit once more, who had resumed her original, composite form, tongue licking at her knifelike teeth in anticipation.

“The mantle of a God… All the pleasures of the Divine… A man would have to be insane to refuse…” Charles began. Jessie lowered her head and began to cry quietly. Charles crossed to her, taking her hand in his.

“I hope the hospice for the deranged has a free bed then, because I could never leave Jessie.”

Jessie looked up at him in utter shock. Charles smiled at her gently. “What did I say love? I’m yours. What kind of man would I be if I threw that in, just because someone made me a nicer-sounding offer?” He turned back to Ammit. “If I die, it’s with her… As I said, my soul is prepared.”

Ammit threw her head back, emitting a deafening roar which shook the rough shrine. Charles squeezed his eyes closed, holding Jessie’s hand tightly as the terrifying power of the Goddess washed over him again. Felt a warm weight on his head. He opened his eyes, staring into the crocodilian gaze of Ammit, her paw placed in benediction upon his head.

“I am not displeased. Only by testing you could I know how strong your convictions were.” Ammit explained, her gaze gentle upon him. “After millennia, the time has come once again. Kneel.”

Jessie and Charles both sank to their knees before the Goddess. “You would cleave to each other, forsaking all others, for as long as life burns within you?” Ammit queried, her voice stern.

“I will, Dread Queen.” Jessie answered.

“Before God, Demon, or Man, I so swear.” Charles said in a harsh whisper.

“Then Arise Hathor, and embrace your Husband, who I do name Horus, Magistrate of My Divine Will and My emissary to Humanity.”

Charles felt the warmth of Ammit’s blessing suffusing his body, as he rose, looking upon Jessie with wonderment. Her eyes spoke of love, and he bent to kiss her parted lips.

Ammit stood patiently as they kissed. A somewhat goofy grin upon her face, Jessie turned to the Goddess. “Thank you, Dread Queen… With all my soul, thank you.”

“I hope you do not bear me ill-will, Hathor, for the pain I have given you.” Ammit said gently.

“Any pain is gone, against the Joy you have granted me, O my Goddess.” Jessie replied worshipfully, bowing to the Goddess.

“My gratitude as well, Divine One…” Charles mused “…but why?”

“The Bull today? Maou’s power fades. Conversely, The Brides of Tyris cannot hear The God. The world stands upon the threshold of destruction or salvation, and even I cannot see which way it will go. I am merely staking My own claim to it, ere the end.” Ammit answered simply.

“Dread Queen? Might I ask a boon of you?” Charles ventured.

“Speak, Horus.”

“My father, Dom, the good people who fell to temptation from the filth I once called brother… Judge them lightly?”

“Oh Horus… know that they are in Paradise and be at peace.” Ammit assured, placing her leonine paw on Charles’s shoulder comfortingly. “I am Justice, not Vengeance, and the Scales of Ma’at are not stern. Now go, my servants, and be assured that I shall make My Will known to you.”

“Thank you, Dread Queen” Charles replied sincerely, as Ammit’s form faded from existence. Human and Mamono paused for a moment, drinking in the amazing development, before turning once again to each other.

“Hello Husband.” Jessie said cheekily, kissing Charles.

“Hello Wife.” Charles replied, returning the kiss.

“So what do we do now?”

“Grit our teeth and prepare for the cyclone, I fear.” Charles sighed regretfully.

“How so, my love?”

“I’ve just gotten married, something forbidden to any but the Brides of Tyris, to a Mamono, no less, and given obeisance and service to a God who isn’t Tyris. You’re looking at the biggest Heretic on the face of the known world, assuming The First Unclean isn’t still knocking about somewhere. If the Faith Militant find out, it will mean Holy War against Caladon.”

“Regrets?” Jessie asked timidly.

“None at all, love.” Charles replied, stroking her face. “Now come on, I’ve read stories about ‘wedding nights’ and I think we deserve that small reward.”

“Small? Ohhh Charlie… I hope you don’t plan on sleeping.” Jessie drawled.

Charles laughed, taking her hand and leading her from the shrine.

“What is this place?” Samuel gasped.

“Honestly Sam, if you insist on asking that same question every time we go somewhere new, I shall become cross with you.” Yumi drawled.

“Hang on, I asked it once, and that was after we climbed that staircase which ran upside down.” Samuel objected.

“Oh pssh. I told you to close your eyes if it was doing funny things to you.”

“Then I wouldn’t have been able to see where I was going!”

Yumi smirked, “You could always hold my hand…”

“How lewd.” Samuel said mockingly, taking the Cheshire’s paw in his hand. The weird and shifting nature of this place played constant tricks with his perception, but Samuel could have sworn Yumi blushed slightly at the contact. He tried to get his bearings as they began traversing a bridge across a swirling vortex which seemed to form only a few steps before Yumi’s eager, almost skipping gait.

He was in Hell.

He was about to meet whatever the Cheshire Cat called ‘Mother’.

And he was thoroughly enjoying her company.

The oddity of that did not escape him, and he gave a slight chuckle.

“Not losing your mind on me, are you Sam?” Yumi asked, slight concern beneath her mocking tone.

“I think that happened somewhere back with the talking statues… But I’m alright.” Samuel quipped.

“Good. Because we’re here.”

A door had appeared, seemingly out of nowhere. “That was quick.” Samuel quipped.

“Actually it’s been… quite a bit longer… Time’s funny in Hell.”

Samuel chuckled. “I guess good company does make it fly.”

Yumi paused for a second, one paw on the door, the other still entwined with Samuel’s. “Please don’t say things like that… U-unless you mean it…” She asked, not daring to look at him, her smug tones replaced with a hint of yearning.

“Come on Yumi, let’s talk to your mother.” Samuel said encouragingly, squeezing her paw. Yumi turned and smiled at him, pushing open the door.

“Hold on to your butt…” She drawled, as they entered a vast hall. Lilim and succubi paused in their conversations to stare at the pair as they entered.

“Ooh, Yumi!” A blue-haired succubus cried. “New toy? Bit plain, but cute enough, let me have a go at him!”

“Piss off Elia, he’s mine.” Yumi hissed. The succubus pouted.

“Not the Caladonian I was hoping for, but it’s good to see you again, dear.” A scarlet-haired Lilim said as she approached, leaning in to kiss him on the cheek. Yumi growled. Samuel studied the Lilim for a moment, before recognition dawned.

“Your Eminence.” He greeted her politely, recognising her as the representative of the Council of Matriarchs who had stood at his trial. The Lilim gave a peal of musical laughter.

“It’s nice to be remembered, but here I’m just Lyra.” She explained. “How is that pretty brother of yours?”

“Lord of the Order of Dumat.” Samuel said simply.

“So the Angels got another Bishounen, Fucking damn it.” Lyra cursed. She seemed genuinely upset by the development, stalking away from Samuel and muttering a number of venomous oaths. Samuel allowed himself to be drawn further into the hall, where a great throne stood, and sitting on it, a vision of unholy beauty.

Her horns were not the simple protrusions of the Lilim, but elaborate and fretted, like a keratinous crown springing from her high brow. Her hair, blue-black as the night sky, yet flecked throughout with sparkling lights like a sea of stars. Her eyes, a radiant violet, where they studied the new arrivals with interest, above a sensual mouth which curved in a smile as Yumi approached.

“Look what I found, Mother!” She crowed in self-satisfaction.

“I see dear. Very nice.” The figure on the throne murmured indulgently.

“Unless I miss my guess… You’re telling me that your Mother is Maou.” Samuel murmured to the Cheshire.

“Well not exactly…” Yumi clarified. “My own mother didn’t long outlive father, and Maou sort of adopted me, letting me be her agent in your world where she needed.” She gave her usual smug grin. “Kinda nice being the foster-daughter of a Goddess.”

“Don’t tease the poor human, Yumi.” Maou chided slightly, letting her attention fall fully upon Samuel.

Samuel gasped as her sheer presence enveloped him. “For the record, Majesty, can we agree that I formed the Sign of the Sunburst and asked Tyris to deliver me and all that customary whatnot?” He asked, fighting to keep himself from simply staring at Her in slack-jawed adoration.

Maou chuckled. “If it makes you feel better, dear.”

“Thank you, Majesty. Now we come to the point. What could a wilder resonant possibly offer to the Divine Sovereign of all Mamono?” Samuel asked plainly.

“Oh, there are a few things, but Yumi would probably object to most of them.” Maou quipped.

“Mother!” Yumi cried.

“See? She finally finds a boy to her liking and she gets all selfish. Ah well… I did make it that way.” Maou admitted. “Which brings me to my point. I need the Logos.”

“Not exactly mine to give, Your Majesty.” Samuel said apologetically, “Even if I could transcribe it in a way a non-human could understand, I’d be eons in doing so.”

“Longer than eons, dear boy. In fact I am pretty sure we would see the heat-death of your universe before you were but halfway done.” Maou agreed.

“Huh?” Samuel involuntarily grunted, his brow creasing with incomprehension.

“Oh drat. That’s right, I remember, I had the Council force the Grand Lodge to keep technology at a pre-industrial level.” Maou cursed.

“You… Ohhhhh… Now that makes so much more sense!” Samuel said in a burst of understanding. “I could never figure out why we had all those amazing schematics locked up and why the Arbiter threatened to put a dagger through my eye if I so much as spoke of them.”

“What good my children in indenturehood if humans can supplant them with technology?” Maou said simply. “It’s my own fault, their purview is magic, and Ilias went and got rid of as much of that as She could the last time She threw a tantrum.”

“Ilias, Majesty?” Samuel queried.

“My sister. You would know her as ‘God-Before-Tyris.” Maou offered indulgently.

Samuel paused as the revelation staggered him.

“We had an agreement!” Maou continued, oblivious to the struggling human before her. “And just because She carried a torch for My husband, She had to go and let reality nearly go all to smash. Petulant bitch.”

“Please, I beg your Majesty. Give me a moment.” Samuel begged. “He who was the Greatest of Heroes, and became The First Unclean, Incubus Primus…”

“I do so dislike that name for him.” Maou interrupted.

“Apologies Majesty. You’re saying The Greatest War was fought over who got to keep him?!”

“It’s a vast oversimplification, but, yes, essentially.”

Samuel groaned, leaning on his knees as his legs trembled.

“Oh don’t be so dramatic. Kingdoms have risen and fallen in Human history over a winsome smile and a comely pair of buttocks.” Maou said dismissively. “Besides, it does come to bear as to why I asked Yumi to bring you here.”

“Please, Majesty… This is a lot to take in.” Samuel begged, breathing heavily. Yumi sighed, turning to him, taking his face in her paws, and kissing him soundly.

“You’re here. I’m here. It’s important. Shake it off.” She demanded. Samuel looked at her in surprise.

“Better?” She asked brusquely.

“Actually yes…” Samuel admitted in amazement.

“Thank you Yumi.” Maou said aside to the Cheshire. “Human, are you familiar with the legend of the Holy Grail?”

“It was my favourite story as a child, Majesty. The last Heroes of Mankind on a quest to find the Chalice which bore the blood of God-Before-Tyris.” Samuel acknowledged.

“Welcome to how millennia can change a language.” Maou said nebulously. “What if I told you that it was not ‘Chalice’, but ‘Children.”

“So God-Before-Tyris…” Samuel began.

“Had Children after She fell. Yes. Thank you for keeping up.” Maou quipped impatiently.

“I’m not the one shrugging off millennia here, Majesty.” Samuel rejoined. “Nor do I see what any of this has to do with me or how I can be of assistance.”

“Humans!” Maou cried in frustration.

“You married one, Mother!” A Lilim drawled mockingly.

“Well he’s not human anymore! And watch your manners.” Maou chided.

“Why don’t we pretend I’m an utter imbecile and spell it out plainly, Majesty.” Samuel entreated desperately.

“Ilias Had Children. Ilias is my sister. Ilias had male children.” Maou explained in exasperation.

Samuel pondered for a moment, before giving an ‘ah’ of understanding. “The Bulls.” He said simply.

“And he’s got it. Merciful fates. Here was I thinking I’d have to explain procreation to him.” Maou erupted in relief. “Yes human. The bulls, the nulls, my great failure. But the existence of Ilias’s children proves I was right, that it can be done! I was just missing something!”

“So you need a wielder of the Logos to fix what was incomplete.”

“If you were simply playing at stupid before, I shall be very cross with you, human.”

Samuel raised his hands placatingly. “I assure Your Majesty, my incomprehension was entirely genuine, but now we’re on a footing I can understand.”

Maou sighed in relief. “I wish my Husband were here, he knows how to explain things to Humans much better than I do.

“Which raises a point, Your Majesty. The Doctrines of Tyris are understandably vague on the governance of The Hells, but all the legends agree that You and Incubus Primus were nigh inseparable. Where is He?” Samuel asked

Maou smiled. “Be sure you’re ready for the answer to that.” She warned.

“It surely cannot be worse than what you’ve already told me.” Samuel assured.

Maou told him.

Samuel stood frozen, processing the information.

“You’re not going to go into apoplexy on me, are you human?” Maou asked in exasperation.

“No Majesty… In a way, it makes perfect sense. He would know, wouldn’t He?

“So now you see.”

“Yes. I see.”

“I will send you back to Caladon. Entreat your brother to present you to Horus and Hathor, servants of Ammit, Goddess of the Underworld. They will know how to proceed. But fair warning, Time in The Hells does not pass the same as in your world. You may find things… Different to how you left them.” Maou warned.

“Yumi hinted at such.” Samuel said resignedly.

“Are you ready?”

“In a moment.” Samuel turned to Yumi “I don’t know what this means. I don’t know if Charles has the right of it, or if we are just governed by the urges of our genes. What I do know is I feel something. And I’d like you to be there when I figure out what that is.”

Yumi smiled smugly. “Oh Sam, you act like I was ever going to give you a choice in that regard.”

“Behave children, and hold on, this might be uncomfortable…” Maou warned, raising a hand towards the Human and Cheshire.

Samuel cried out involuntarily as the world fell away around him.

“Lord Dumat, in the name of Tyris I order you to comply with the wishes of the Conclave!” The Commandant near-shrieked. Lloyd leaned forward slightly, fixing the Paladin with a steady gaze.

“You, Commandant. Order Me.” He echoed drily. “You’re aware I could have you drawn and quartered by the Angelic Host for even daring to make such a demand, right?”

“B-But he is engaged in Heresy!” the commandant stammered.

“Oh? Please, if you were withholding the proof for dramatic effect, please do feel free to present it now, I’m sure we’re all breathless with anticipation.” Lloyd drawled, leaning back in his chair and steepling his fingers in front of him.

“My Lord! You’ve heard the testimonies!”

“Lurid and possibly exaggerated testimonies of convicted traitors being rounded up by centaurs and crucified. Not exactly standard practice, I’ll admit, but well within his rights as Baron.” Ambassador Kyla said wearily, her face bearing new lines and grey streaks now present at her temples.

“And the constant flow of previous Landholders in Caladon coming to Magisterium in search of new holdings?”

Kyla snorted dismissively “They were paid, and generously. If they choose to leave, that is their right and I for one am too busy to question it.”

“And what of the others? That he engages in continuance with Mamono? That he gives worship to a Pagan Goddess?”

“Oh please. Cooked up fantasies from continental malcontents, trying to distract from Prince Samuel’s disappearance.” Kyla said mockingly.

A High Priestess leaned forward with a slight noise of exasperation “Disappearance? It’s been nearly ten years! Surely the poor boy is dead, Tyris rest his Soul. It’s plainly evident that Caladon is milking this event to avoid paying its lawful dues to Magisterium.”

“Your Reverence, I would suggest you do not pursue that line of thought any further, unless you want me to withdraw from the Privy Council of the Westerlands and declare Caladon a Free City in truth.” Kyla said warningly. “Samuel disappeared under your watch, honoured Councillors. House Caladon is within its rights to withhold tribute until the nature of his disappearance can be established.”

“Ten years though!” A female councillor repeated.

“House Corinth withheld tribute for five decades after the Mistresses of the Bloodlines declared its Baron a cut branch, did they not? And did not the Court of the High Lords find them within their right as they were not given the opportunity to acknowledge an Heir Apparent?” Kyla retorted. “Baron Charles, similarly, is a cut branch. Samuel, the Heir Apparent disappears whilst under lodge tutelage from within the city of Magisterium. I have said it for nine years, and if it be nine or ninety more, my answer remains the same. We will not authorise any writ of conscription. We do not recognise the authority of any Inquisition. We will not produce tribute, and we will view any foreign force within our borders as hostile, until I am satisfied as to what has happened to Prince Samuel.”

“Councillors.” Lloyd quickly interjected. “I am here only as a favour to Ambassador Kyla before seeing my daughter Awakened to Resonance. I did not come here to manipulate a stalemate in purely secular matters.”

“Secular?” The Commandant echoed incredulously. “Again, My Lord…”

“Again. Commandant. If you produce proof that Charles is, in fact, engaged in Heresy, I will be happy to override the Ambassador. My first and only duty is to Tyris, and the word of Tyris is clear. Remember The Pax.” Lloyd intoned the last with Angelic authority, his clear eyes glowing with suppressed power.

“Being present when Amaranth Awakens to Resonance though…” The female councillor ventured “…such is highly irregular in its own right.”

Lloyd laughed. “Tyris Himself commanded me to keep her safe, councillor. I am not so foolish as to be ignorant of the fact that turmoil has been spreading within the Grand Lodge. The Arbiter has been dismissed, the Master supplanted, and you, Senior Warden, have judiciously been able to avoid the queries of a growing faction amongst your ranks. I will not have the future Bride of the Most High walking into that den of scorpions unescorted.”

“You decry the testimony of the continental barons as malcontent, yet listen to the propaganda of Protestants?” The senior warden mocked.

“Councillor, your powers as resonant eclipse my own, but you are not impervious. Tread lightly with me, or you will Know why My Name is Silence.” Lloyd’s eyes narrowed dangerously.

“I think we have clearly exhausted the potential for productive conversation. I adjourn this meeting of the Privy council until one Solar year hence.” Kyla said shortly. “Thank you for your time, Reverences and Honoured Nobles. I believe you know the way out.”

Grumbling, the other participants left the embassy. Kyla broke down in tears as the last of them left.

“My boy, Lloyd! My little boy! Every year they use him as a dagger to be thrust into my heart!” She sobbed.

“My heart bleeds with yours, Ambassador. But have a care, we are both bound to the law, and you skirt blasphemy.” Lloyd said, half warningly.

Kyla gave a gallows sigh and dashed the tears from her eyes. “You are right, of course, My Lord Dumat. May The God forgive me.”

“Of course he will, Ambassador.” A musical voice sounded from the door, as in walked an enchanting beauty, dressed in a priestesses robes, platinum blonde hair flowing to her waist, golden eyes filled with compassion. “After all, Tyris loves His children.”

“Amaranth.” Lloyd said, smiling broadly, opening his arms to her.

“Hello father, you’re looking well.” Amaranth replied, embracing Lloyd and kissing him lightly on the cheek, before turning to embrace Kyla “You are not getting enough sleep, Ambassador.” She chided lightly.

“Duty’s a heretic like that.” Kyla answered, warmly returning the young woman’s embrace.

“You do too much, your eminence, we love you too much to see The God take you from us prematurely.” Amaranth rejoined, turning back to Lloyd. “It is almost time, Father.”

“I know. But I would ask you indulge me one small act in preparation.” Lloyd entreated, raising his hands and closing his eyes.

“Ariael” He whispered. In a flash of golden light, the angel appeared, causing Kyla to gasp and recoil in her chair.

The Angel smiled gently at Kyla. “Be not afraid, faithful and true.” She murmured softly, letting a stream of her divine power play against the older woman’s face. Kyla smiled as the warmth of the benediction filled her soul. Her eyelids drooped, and her head fell forward in gentle sleep.

“My Love…” Ariael said, turning to embrace Lloyd with arms and wings. Lloyd kissed her deeply, wrapping his own arms about her.

“Oh come on you two.” Amaranth jested with a broad grin.

“Amaranth, you look lovelier every time I see you. My Divine Master should be glad He is The God, lest his heart stop in your presence.” Ariael said with a slight grin, breaking her embrace with Lloyd and turning to hug her.

“Oh stop, Ariael, pride is a Sin you know.” Amaranth retorted warmly, returning the Angel’s embrace.

“My Love, I would ask a favour of you.” Lloyd entreated.

“Your daughter is in the room, My Heart.” Ariael replied, trace of a saucy grin on her perfect features.

“Ew. That’s my father, Ariael.” Amaranth objected, the bow of her mouth curved in distaste.

“Ladies, stop.” Lloyd laughed helplessly. “Ariael, I need you to be ready with your strongest sisters for my call. I may not have time to summon them individually should they be needed.”

“You’re that concerned, father?” Amaranth said, a worried frown creasing her brow.

“You’re my little girl, Amaranth, it’s a father’s prerogative.” Lloyd replied, smiling warmly. “Plus, also, commanded by The God. Tends to make one lean towards caution.”

“Oh I do love you!” Amaranth laughed, taking Man and Angel in a communal embrace.

“Love you too… Shall we?” Lloyd gestured grandly.

“We shall be ready, my love.” Ariael assured, shimmering from existence.

“What about Kyla?” Amaranth asked.

“Oh, she might have a stiff neck, but she’ll be better for the rest. Let her sleep.” Lloyd said gently, escorting his daughter from the embassy.

“Are we walking the whole way to the Lodge, Father?” Amaranth queried.

“Of course not, my treasure, I just wanted to be sure we were seen leaving… And… Here… We… Go…”

Lloyd gestured with one hand, holding Amaranth about the waist with the other. A golden glow surrounded them, obscuring their vision, and when it cleared, they stood before the doors of the Grand Lodge.

“You are a useful person to have around, Lord Dumat.” Amaranth mocked, grinning up at her father.

“Why thank you, Sister Amaranth, one does what one can.” Lloyd replied with a smile, pushing the door open and standing aside for her to enter. Two resonants bowed respectfully, gesturing for the pair to follow them. Through the corridors of the Lodge they were lead, coming into a tiered hall, where a number of resonants sat waiting. A tall continental stood before a black basalt altar, gripping a metal pole on its leading edge.

“Stand back, your reverences, we’re about to begin” one of the escorting resonants murmured.

Lloyd watched as arcing energy engulfed the man, his arms locked to the rod as his muscles contracted. His back arched, his tongue protruding from his mouth as he gurgled, his eyes rolled back in his head. Lloyd felt Amaranth turn her head into his arm, refusing to watch the gruesome display. Suddenly, the man went limp, collapsing to the floor. A resonant hurried forward, placing his hand upon the prone man’s throat. Standing, he shook his head sadly towards where a middle-aged resonant sat in an elaborate chair.

“The Candidate was unworthy.” The man said simply. A murmur of disappointment rippled throughout the resonants in the tiered seating around the altar. Two resonants crossed to the body, making to take it away.

“Wait, please, gentle sirs.” Amaranth entreated, rushing towards the corpse. Kneeling, she placed a hand on the dead man’s forehead.

“Tyris forgive your Sins, and take you to Him in His Heavens.” She intoned, before stepping back to Lloyd’s side. A few resonants raised their hands in the sign of the sunburst. A faint murmur of “All Glory to the Most High” was heard.

“Your kindness is noted, Sister Amaranth.” The resonant in the elaborate chair said, shifting slightly. “Let Sister Amaranth of the One Holy Church of Eternal Tyris approach the Matrix.”

“Address him as ‘Master’. Good luck.” One of the escorting resonants murmured to Amaranth. Lloyd reached for her as she was lead towards the altar.

“Wait…” he croaked.

“Have faith, father.” Amaranth murmured with a smile over her shoulder at Lloyd. “The God will preserve me.”

The escorting resonant gestured for Amaranth to hold the rod to brace herself. Smiling, she shook her head, folding her hands in front of her and staring unflinchingly at the glowing crystal within the altar’s hollow. The glow seemed to focus on her, as if contemplating this new offering.

Amaranth began to sing, her musical voice ringing throughout the hall. A hymn of thanksgiving, of supplication. The energy of the Matrix lashed out, surrounding her and she gasped, her golden eyes wide as the alien energy surged within her.

“I see!” she gasped.

The energy seemed to play more frantically, Amaranth smiled, spreading her arms and allowing it to flow into her.

“So simple… It’s so simple!” She crowed. The Crystal detonated with a thunderous report, deadly shards held in place by the will of the resonants in the tiers above. The energy faded away, and Amaranth studied the resonants about her.

“I Am Awakened.” She declared. The tiered resonants began exclaiming in awe. The master gestured sharply, and two resonants quickly hurried to her side, trying to lead her off into a side passage.

“Hold there, where are you taking her!” Lloyd demanded.

“Such a miracle must be noted, Lord Dumat. Even the strongest of will have not had such an easy awakening. Such has not been seen since…” The Master began.

“The last Bride of Tyris.” Lloyd finished for him. “She is my charge, and you may not take her.”

“Oh Lord Dumat… Did you think we would let such a prize slip from us?” The Master asked, his mouth turned up in a mocking grin. “We hold the power to make our Holy Mother Church bend the knee to us, finally.”

“Heresy!” Lloyd snarled, calling upon his Angelic power. The Master laughed.

“Think you to foil us with your paltry abilities, Lord Dumat?”

“Not alone!” Came a voice from the tiers. “Protestants, now!”

Confusion reigned supreme as resonant battled resonant, powers unseen to the naked eye causing reality itself to warp and weft in the air around the hall.

“Subsume the Master! Seize the officers!” A short Aestenlander ordered, “For Samuel!”

“For Samuel!” Voices rang throughout the hall. A muscular man, clad in a waylander’s simple garb stepped onto the floor, stubbled face set in a frightening grin as he fixed the master with an unblinking gaze.

“I always wanted to beat your arse myself, cunt.” The waylander grated.

“You won’t find me such easy prey, Bruce!” The master rejoined, his eyes hardening. An unseen blow ripped into the waylander, shattering his left arm. The waylander sneered, and Lloyd watched in amazement as the damage rapidly reversed itself.

“I should have just had Ulat rape you, fucking weak prick.” The waylander rejoined, throwing his own glyph which knocked the master clear out of his chair.

“You waiting for de written invitation? Take de Bride and Go, Lord Dumat!” A tall Suudenlander barked at him, eyes flicking about as he countered unseen forces around him. Lloyd sprang to Amaranth’s side, the escorting resonants still in shock at the sudden tumult. One looked at him, releasing Amaranth’s arm.

“All Glory to the Most High.” The Nordenlander intoned, turning and punching the other resonant in the face.

Ariael! Lloyd called, grabbing his daughter about the waist. With a shattering blast of choral voices, seven angels appeared around them.

We are the Deliverance of the Pious!” The angels intoned as one, locking shimmering shields and lowering glowing lances. A brilliant golden light surrounded them, and they were gone.

“Where are we, father?” Amaranth’s voice echoed in the glowing void which surrounded them.

“The lower Heavens, as I understand them.” Lloyd answered, sensing rather than feeling as they moved with their winged escort.

“Where would you go, my love?” Ariael entreated, her perfect face hidden behind a shining helm.

Lloyd pondered that for a moment. Suddenly he knew. “The last place of safety I can think of, Dearest One. Take us Home.”

“And their answer?” Charles asked

“My Lord, the Independant Merchants and Freelancer’s Combine cannot be seen to be entering into alliance with a House so clearly at odds with Magisterium.” The functionary said with an oily bow.

“Ambassador Kayla remains to Embassy!” Charles objected.

“For how long though?” The functionary queried.

“Hang it all man, it’s been nearly ten years!”

“And the IMFC has the capacity to halt trade for a century. That power is not readily exercised.” The functionary explained diplomatically.

“Then what.” Charles sighed.

“Should you declare yourself a Free City, My Lord, then the IMFC would be honour-bound to accept you as a Director. Before that, our services remain available to you… for a price.” The functionary quipped.

“I know your prices, you fucking pirate.” Charles grated.

“My Lord! Freelancer, please, we don’t use the P-word in polite company.”

“The agreement stands then… Thank you, sirrah.”

The functionary gave another oily bow, before leaving the great hall.

Charles rubbed his face. “Master of the Hives?” He called.

“Beastmaster?” A young man replied.

“Oh fucking must you?” Charles pleaded.

“It is how the Queens refer to you, My Lord, it becomes habitual.” The young man said with a slight smile.

“Anything new from your patrols?”

The young man leant back slightly, to where a bee-girl buzzed something softly in his ear. Nodding, he returned his gaze to Charles.

“Small scouting forces from House Iona. They seem to want to curry favour by making forays into Caladonian territory.”

“Course they fucking do, Mark’s a weak-chinned little shit and has been since the day the simple-minded courtier his father emptied himself into spawned the wretch.”

“Blasphemy!” A landholder gasped.

“Fucking Challenge.” Charles snarled.

“Withdrawn, Lord. Old habits.” The landholder murmured apologetically.

“Your Grace is received… Gentlemen I have made it perfectly clear. I am Law. I will be nothing if not fair with you. I will uphold the Pax and the Commandments of The God. What I will not do is pussy about with ritual more than is absolutely necessary.”

The landholders murmured acceptance, their number vastly smaller than the packed court of Lord William’s time. Charles turned back to the Master of the Hives.

“Have the Ants tunnel closer to the surface. Tell them to neglect their usual reinforcements.”

The young man furrowed his brow. “They won’t like that, My Lord. You know how serious they are about their workmanship.”

Charles swore. “Do I have to spell it out, Craig? I want the tunnels to fail, and some Ionan horses to break some legs falling through them.”

“Ahhh… I see. Good idea My Lord.”

“Necessary idea, Craig… I feel bad about the horses, it’s not their fault their owners are shits.” Charles tapped the arm of the High Seat in thought. “Master of the Herds.”

“I am here, Lord Baron.” A muscular man answered, his voice a deep rumble.

“Surprised the Centaurs left you alone long enough, Hans.” Charles answered with a grin.

“They press me, my answer remains the same, My Lord.” Hans said, returning the grin.

“Shireen must be chewing the walls in frustration.”

“I love centaurs, I truly do. They are magnificent and beautiful.”

“And yet you haven’t…” Charles made a gesture

“Lord, I also like rabbits. I don’t engage in continuance with them.” Hans said simply.

Charles laughed heartily. “Bless you, Hans. Surely The God sent you to keep me fucking sane.”

“Thank you, Lord. You would have something of me?”

“Yes. Have our girls need of further armament?”

Hans pondered for a moment. “They’ve taken an interest in the snub-nosed shard rifles, Lord. Shireen insists they can increase efficacy along patrol routes by…”

“Arming Mamono with shard weaponry… Why don’t I just hand the barony over to the Council of Matriarchs and be done with it, Hans? Any sensible requests?”

“Armor repairs and sundries then, My Lord, the usual.” Hans shrugged

“Granted. Jess, see it done, will you?” Charles said, looking over at his Taurean wife where she stood with a board and parchment.

“At once, Sire.” Jessie answered politely, flicking Charles a secret wink.

“Master of Coin.” Charles began “How stand our holdings in silk now the Arachne have…”

“My Lord Baron!” A guard cried, dragging a struggling youth into the hall.

“What is it man?” Charles asked exasperatedly.

“We found him in the lower keep, he claims to be… Well, see for yourself.” The guard said, pushing the youth forward.

The youth ran a hand through auburn hair, straightening his clothes and glaring at the guard.

“Honestly, did your father accidentally have continuance with a goldfish? Why in Tyris’s name would you doubt m…” The youth’s diatribe died on his lips as he looked at Charles, his eyes widening with horror.

“Charlie… Oh… Oh no…” the youth moaned. Charles looked at him, brow furrowed.

“Who are you?” Charles queried.

“M-My Lord! Look at him!” Jessie gasped.

“Jess? Oh fucking hells…” the youth cried, his hands clasped to his head in shock. Charles looked at him… Surely it couldn’t be…

“Samuel?” He ventured.

“It’s me. I promise it’s me!” Samuel stammered. “How long? Oh my God…. How fucking long was I gone?”

“T-Ten years… give or take…” Charles croaked. Standing on shaking legs, he addressed the gathered members of the court.

“Reverences, gentlemen, honoraries, your graces, eminences, whatever. Kindly out.” Charles barked. A murmur of confusion rippled through them as they exited. When the last had left, Charles descended the stairs leading to the High Seat, staring at this apparition of the past.

“When you first awoke after the Wolf Camp, you called me something… What was it?” Charles hissed.

“I said you were an ugly fucker… Age has given you some dignity though, big brother.” Samuel replied hoarsely.

With a cry, Charles rushed to embrace his brother. “Damn you Sam, Damn you! We all thought you were dead!” he yelled through tears.

“I’m sorry! I didn’t know! I promise I didn’t know!” Samuel cried out, clinging to his brother like a drowning man to a rock.

“I tried to warn you…” a voice came from the air beside them. Charles shot a hand out, lightning quick. A Cheshire materialized around his hand, her throat caught solidly within his grip. Struggling, she made panicked choking sounds.

“Charles, put Yumi down.” Samuel entreated. Charles released the Cheshire, who rubbed her throat, before glancing at Samuel.

“That’s my line.” Yumi drawled. “And he’s not human… Well, not entirely… He’s… overlain with something.”

“What?” Samuel wiped the tears from his eyes. “Transmutation?”

“No… This is something different… Something older.” Yumi murmured, peering at the older Caladonian. “What’s in you?”

“Look, we can get to me later” Charles said abruptly. “Where the fuck have you been?!

“Hell, not to put too fine a point on it.” Samuel quipped.

“No seriously.”

“Not bullshitting you Charlie. Hell. Flat out, met Maou and everything.”

Charles rocked back on his heels. “Well that’s not an answer I was expecting. , ‘Kidnapped by some bugfuck continentals’, sure. ‘Fucked up some resonant thing and ended up on the moon’, less likely, but I would have accepted it. But Hell?” He shook his head. “You know Mika killed herself, and Nala basically went vegetative over the whole thing. We had to have the council come collect her.”

Samuel swore venomously. “Of course I didn’t fucking know! As far as I was concerned it was a day, maybe two or three at the outside. Honestly do you think I’d be playing grabass with you over something like this?”

“Hey… I’m sorry Sam. I’m taking it out on you and you don’t deserve it. C’mon, there’s someone you need to meet.” Charles said with a gentle smile. Leading his brother into the noble apartments, Charles stopped at a door.

“If you denounce me for Heresy I’m going to punch you in the face, alright?” Charles said seriously.

“Charlie I just came back from an apparent fucking decade in Hell with a Cheshire in tow. I’m not in a position to be denouncing shit.” Samuel retorted.

“Hey!” Yumi objected.

“No offense Yumi.” Samuel offered.

“Gonna get you for that, Sam.” She said with a mock glower.

Charles pushed open the door. “Seti?” he called.

“Yes dad?” came a piping voice, and a Taurean child came trotting out on steady digitigrade legs, throwing arms about Charles in greeting, before looking at Samuel with deep, brown eyes.

“Seti, this is your uncle Samuel.” Charles said gently.

“Didn’t you say he was dead?” Seti said with childish innocence.

“I thought so, but… well… here he is.”

“So you and Jessie then…” Samuel began.

“The night you told me you were leaving for Magisterium.” Charles confirmed.

“Should denounce you, don’t care. Congratulations big brother.” Samuel said with a grin, looking at Seti. “It’s a Null then?”

Charles laughed. “No Sam… He’s a boy!”

“A boy… Not a bull… but a male in full possession of his faculties.” Samuel clarified.

“What’s a faculties?” Seti asked.

“Well sometimes I have my doubts…” Charles mocked, tickling the Taurean boy who giggled and squirmed in Charles’s grasp. “…But yes, he’s got his own mind.”

Samuel paused for a moment before laughing helplessly, leaning on the wall to steady himself.

“You alright or are you about to lose your shit, Sam?” Charles asked in concern.

“Dad, mummy will get cross if you use naughty words like that.” Seti said seriously.

“No… No I’m fine…” Samuel said assuringly. “Maou said it was possible but I didn’t expect to see it here, right in front of me.” He took a deep breath, steadying himself. “Charles, I don’t know how much time we have, or if we’re already too late, but I need to speak to some fuckers named Horus and Hathor. Maou said you’d know who they were.”

“Don’t swear in front of Seti, Sam.” Jessie’s voice chided from behind them as she moved next to Charles. “She always did love Her mysteries.” She said, picking the Taurean boy up and bouncing him on her ample hip.

“Come on love, if it was anything like my first meeting with a Divine, poor Sam probably had the barest hold on sanity.” Charles entreated.

“That’s being generous.” Yumi drawled.

“Yumi!” Samuel objected

Yumi gave a smug grin. “Told you I’d get you”

“Well, yes.” Charles admitted. “I do know who Horus and Hathor are. You’re looking at them.”

Samuel’s jaw hung open for a moment as he stared dumfounded at the pair.

“I think you broke my human.” Yumi said disapprovingly.

“My Lord!” Came the voice of a panicked guard from the entrance of the apartments.

“What is it?” Charles and Samuel answered together. “Sorry My Lord Baron.” Samuel said apologetically. Charles grinned, gripping his shoulder. “Speak up man!” he called.

“Angels, Lord, a whole sodding flight of them! And they’ve got your Brother and Amaranth with them!” The guard replied.

“Amaranth?” Samuel asked uncomprehendingly.

“Ammit preserve me.” Charles murmured, rolling his eyes. “This day just had to go and get interesting. Jessie, stay here with Seti. Samuel being back is likely to throw Lloyd off-balance, and you know how impulsive he gets.”

Jessie nodded, as the two brothers ran out of the apartments.

Lloyd stood, holding Amaranth’s hand as the angels about him lowered lances at the Mamono in the courtyard warily. The various species milled slightly, looking at the angels with suspicion and not a little fear.

“Stand down, O Holy Host.” Lloyd ordered.

“Are you certain, my love?” Ariael queried.

“This is my home, dearest. I’ll be fine.” Lloyd assured. Nodding, Ariael gestured, and as one, the angels put up their lances, vanishing in a burst of golden light. As the light cleared, Lloyd saw his brother striding towards him, an auburn-haired youth following. Seeing Lloyd, the youth grinned broadly.

“Damn Lloyd, I’m not sure who’s prettier, you or the priestess.” He drawled.

Lloyd shook his head… No… it couldn’t be.

“Samuel?” He gasped

Samuel grinned, walking towards Lloyd with arms outstretched. “It’s me, Lloyd.”

Lloyd released Amaranth’s hand, running forward and catching Samuel in a rough embrace. “You shit!” he grated hoarsely “you utter, utter shit!”

“I’m sorry Lloyd. I’m so sorry.” Samuel murmured. Lloyd pulled back, staring at his youthful features.

“You haven’t aged a day.” He exclaimed in confusion. “Where have you been?”

“Conversation best had in private, Lloyd. C’mon. Charles, if you could see fit to…” Samuel entreated.

“My office should suit.” Charles replied, gesturing for them to follow him.

“By the way Lloyd, who’s…” he ventured, looking speculatively at Amaranth.

“Amaranth, the next Bride of Tyris, my daughter… and your niece, I suppose.” Lloyd replied, Amaranth smiling warmly in greeting.

“Oh boy. Charles, I really hope you’ve got something strong in your office, I get the feeling we’ll need it.” Samuel groaned.

“I’m the Baron of Caladon, Sam. Of course I fucking do.” Charles drawled, throwing a grin over his shoulder at his brothers as they entered the upper keep…

“…You’ve been where?” Lloyd burst incredulously.

“The Hells, Lord Dumat. I’d paint you a picture but I don’t think they make paint in the colour twelve or a laugh-shaped brush.” Samuel retorted in frustration.

“What?”

“Never mind, you had to be there.”

“But… why you?”

“That is would I would like to fucking know!” Samuel yelled. “I wanted a simple holding, a comfortable lifestyle, and to die fat and fucking happy. Now every time I turn around it’s like some new chicanery is falling on my damn head. And now I’ve gone and somehow lost ten years. And what’s worse is it’s not even letting the rest of you alone. Tyris be good, Lloyd’s up to the eyeballs in angel, and Charles has had the first non-bull Mamono son in fucking histor…”

SAM!” Charles cried

“WHAT?!” Lloyd yelled

Lloyd and Charles both simultaneously stood, staring at Samuel.

“Say that again…” Lloyd hissed. Charles put his face in his hands.

“He didn’t know about Seti, Sam.”

“Huh?” Samuel burst incomprehendingly. “You knew about Amaranth!”

“Because Lloyd doted on the girl and brought her to the keep a few times. And I’m not so much of an idiot as to present my Mamono son to the fucking Lord of Silence.” Charles moaned.

Lloyd slowly turned his gaze towards his older brother. “Charlie” he began in a deadly quiet voice. “I’m going to ask you some questions, and you’re going to answer me honestly.”

“Not like I’ve got a choice in the matter.”

“Smart man. Now. You have engaged in continuance with a Mamono?”

“True, I’m also a cut branch so the prohibition doesn’t really mean shit. It’s not like I’m putting any human women in danger of corruption.”

Lloyd curled his lip “No, you’re just the Lord of a Barony and thus even a casual pairing could be argued to breach The Pax. You have spawned progeny with said Mamono?”

“Seti’s a fine boy, Lloyd. You leave him the fuck out of this.” Charles growled warningly.

“Don’t threaten me Charles. Do you give worship to a Pagan Goddess?”

“Pagan? Ammit’s older and more powerful than Tyris and Maou combined!” Charles laughed. “And do not the chancels still stand? Are not the people following the Pax?”

“Heresy!” Lloyd snarled in denunciation.

“Challenge!” Samuel spat. Lloyd turned to Samuel with disdain.

“I am the Morning and the Evening Star. I am the One whose Name is Silence… By what authority do you challenge?”

Samuel’s mouth worked as he fought to find a response. Lloyd turned back to Charles, who had folded his arms across his barrel-like chest and stood staring impassively at the blond man.

“I declare you guilty. The God have mercy upon your soul.” Lloyd raised a hand, glowing with angelic runes.

“Lloyd no!” Samuel screamed

A golden blade emerged, spinning from his hand. With a shriek, it hurtled towards Charles. Distraught, Samuel could not even call upon the Logos to defend his brother…

…With a discordant clang, the divine blade shattered against Charles’s chest. Samuel opened his eyes, blinking in disbelief.

“How…” Lloyd gasped.

“I am Horus Amun-Thoth. Magistrate of Ammit and Executor of Her Justice.” Charles intoned, stepping around the table towards Lloyd, who still stood in shock. “Did you think She would place such a yoke upon me without granting me the authority to enact it?” Swinging his arm, he punched Lloyd in the gut.

Amaranth shrieked as her father doubled over, the wind knocked out of him. She hastily formed a resonant glyph, which Samuel shattered with a counter.

“Stay out of it, girl. This is between them.” Samuel warned.

“Girl?” Amaranth echoed, glaring petulantly. “I might not be a Bride of Tyris yet, but I’m still a High Priestess of the One Holy Church of Eternal Tyris, and more than that, you’ve got what, three years on me?”

“Oh fuck me… Your Reverence, with respect, sit the fuck down and let your Father and your Uncle have it out.” Samuel near-begged.

“That will be quite enough of that.” A voice sounded from behind them. Lloyd and Charles paused where they grappled. Yumi shimmered into existence, looking at the brothers with a nonplussed expression.

“You, Dumat, are a fucking hypocrite.” Yumi spat.

“You dare…” Lloyd gasped

“Oh hush. You’ve got so much angel in you that I’m surprised you’re not sprouting wings where we stand.”

“What’s that got to do with…” Amaranth began.

Yumi fixed Amaranth with a level stare. “Angels are Mamono.”

Amaranth gasped, and Lloyd had the grace to look slightly abashed.

Charles gave Lloyd a shove backwards. “Oh, accuse me of Heresy when you’re a fingers breadth from fucking transmutation?”

“It’s not the same! The ways of The God…” Lloyd objected.

A noise was intruding

“Semantics Lloyd, honestly, what even possessed you to…” Samuel snarled, not taking his eyes off Amaranth.

A noise was intruding

“Shut up!” Yumi yowled, looking towards an alcove in the office from where the noise was emanating. “What is that?”

Charles turned, looking at the farcaster where it chimed shrilly in its alcove. With a practiced hand, he activated it.

“Yes?” He said shortly.

“Oh Charles, Thank Tyris you’re there.” Kyla’s voice sounded from the glow of the farcaster.

Charles’s brow furrowed with concern. “Ambassador? Whatever’s wrong?”

“My Lord Baron, I humbly request to be recalled from embassy.” She intoned formally, a hint of nervousness in her voice.

“Recalled? What? You haven’t gone and declared us a Free City without telling me have you? Because something… May have come up…” Charles replied, glancing at Samuel where he remained lock-eyed with Amaranth, and Lloyd who still stood staring at him with a face like a thundercloud.

“Whatever it is, fuck it.” Kyla declared. The brothers gasped at the uncharacteristic expletive. “Magisterium is in utter chaos. The Grand Lodge of the Resonant is in ruins, the entire eastern city is in near-riot with panic, The High Lords have been censured and stood down, The Council Guard is barely keeping the nobility from pitched battle within the halls, and the Church is on the brink of civil war.”

“What the fuck did you do, Lloyd?” Charles hissed suspiciously at his brother. Lloyd ignored the question, leaning closer to the farcaster.

“What’s happening with the Church?” Lloyd asked breathlessly.

“Lloyd, you’re alright, thank The God. I was worried you and Amaranth didn’t manage to get out. The Faith Militant is demanding the Conclave of the Faithful acknowledge a Crisis of The Faith. The High Priestesses are holding them off for now, but all appeals to the Cathedral Solar are going unanswered.”

“Tyris still isn’t speaking to the Brides.” Lloyd murmured, his anger beginning to be replaced with a worried frown.

“Tyris isn’t what now?” Samuel exclaimed, breaking eye contact with Amaranth in shock. The young High Priestesses eyes narrowed, and Samuel recoiled slightly with a startled oath, before fixing Amaranth with a glare. The young woman gave a short scream and jumped, grasping at her buttocks.

“The next time I’ll put you over my fucking knee, Bride or no.” He snarled. “You’re talented for someone who was awakened so recently, but I’ve got the upper hand on you, so settle the fuck down.”

“Amaranth, leave it alone.” Lloyd said entreatingly. Amaranth nodded with a slight sulk. Yumi, still hovering on the periphery, gave a smug, almost possessive grin, her eyes never leaving Samuel’s face.

“Who was that?” Kyla asked insistently.

“Never mind, Kyla. Get yourself home, I grant your request for recall.” Charles said quickly, gesturing for the rest of the group to remain quiet.

“Please tell me this counts as a Diplomatic Crisis.” Kyla begged.

“If this doesn’t, nothing will.” Charles agreed with a short, humourless laugh.

“Tyris be Praised, then please tell me you’re still in contact with the Chancel. The High Priestesses there should be able to…”

Charles grinned. “Oh, I’ll do you one better. Stand by.” With a practiced wave, he terminated the casting. Walking over to a large cupboard, he opened the door, curios and various oddities scattered upon its shelf. “Lloyd, give me a hand with this?”

“We are not finished with our discussion, Charles…” Lloyd said ominously.

“We’ll go outside later and beat each other bloody, I promise.” Charles said, “But right now I want to get Kyla out of Magisterium before the whole place implodes.”

Lloyd gave a sigh, walking over to stand next to Charles. Charles reached for an unassuming strip of leather on the top shelf. “Now look for one to your left… That’s it, now pull man, pull!”

With a creak and a crash, the panelling at the rear of the cupboard came away, spilling shelves and contents onto the floor. Charles unceremoniously kicked the rubble away from the revealed backing, revealing a grey, metallic arch set into the wall.

“Recognise that Sam?” Charles asked. Samuel squinted at the archway.

“Resonant glyphs… It’s… hang on a minute.” His brow furrowed in concentration. “It’s a waygate! How in the name of The God did we get one, The Pax demands that they are used only for….”

“…Transporting Priestesses and vital diplomatic packages.” Charles finished. “I think a recalled Ambassador counts as a vital Diplomatic package, don’t you?”

“It’s sophistry, but it’s good sophistry.” Lloyd said with uncertainty.

“Lloyd, my beloved brother, you’ve just declared me a Heretic. What are you gonna do, declare me a double Heretic?” Charles asked incredulously. Lloyd pondered that for a moment, before laughing helplessly and stepping away from the revealed waygate. Charles turned his head back to Samuel “So, can you get it open?”

Samuel pondered the waygate, studying the runes. “Not alone.” He admitted. I need someone to…” he looked over to where Amaranth still sulked. “Amaranth, could you come look here?”

“As you so pointedly reminded me, Uncle, I am newly awakened, what use could I possibly be?” She said with a distinct air of petulance.

Samuel laughed. “Just come look.” He entreated.

“But I can’t…” Amaranth objected. Yumi sighed, flitting from existence and appearing behind the girl, placing two paws on her back and pushing her firmly towards the archway, Amaranth shrieked in surprise, turning on the Cheshire cat, who promptly vanished, leaving only the ghost of a smug smirk.

“Thank you Yumi, now look” Samuel urged.

Amaranth sighed, looking at the arch. Suddenly her eyes widened. “I-I can see it!”

“Welcome to Resonance, Sister in the Logos!” Samuel drawled, placing his hand upon her shoulder and squeezing gently. Amaranth smiled at him in spite of herself.

“So I Just…” She began

“Yes but make sure to…” Samuel explained

“But what about…”

“Use this here…”

“Ohh… And then I…”

“Exactly.”

“Are you following this?” Charles queried. Lloyd shook his head helplessly.

Amaranth and Samuel focused on the Arch, calling upon the Logos. The interior of the arch warped and shimmered, before opening like a drawn curtain upon the Embassy of Caladon, and a startled Kyla, who gasped in shock.

“Well don’t just stand about, your Eminence, quick as you like!” Charles cried. Kyla stood, scrambling through the opened waygate.

“Ack!” She cried, collapsing onto the floor.

Samuel signalled to Amaranth, and the two resonants closed the waygate, the stonework within it returning to normal. He knelt, helping Kyla to her feet.

“Are you alright?” He murmured with concern.

“Fine Samuel, it’s just not every day one crosses half a world with a single ste…” She paused, looking at him. “S-Samuel?”

“Yes, your Eminence.” Samuel said with a gentle smile of assurance. Kayla gave a low cry, throwing her arms about him and grasping him tightly.

“Ghurk! Mother! Air! Need air!” Samuel gasped, trying to prise her arms from about his neck.

“Blasphe…” Lloyd began, before shaking his head “You know what, I’m not even going to bother.” He turned to Charles. “I think we had better finish our conversation.”

“As you will, Lloyd.” Charles said politely, gesturing for his brother to lead the way out of the apartments.

Kyla turned briefly from Samuel to glare at the pair. “No hitting!” She commanded, pointing imperiously.

“No promises, Ambassador.” Charles said with an apologetic shrug, closing the door behind them.

Kyla turned back to Samuel, before slapping him firmly across the face.

“Ow! What’d I do?” Samuel objected.

“What did you do? What did you do?” Kyla shrieked. “How about ten years without a word after vanishing without a trace? How about letting me believe you were dead! How about being the focus for the current anarchy which now holds sway over the Hub of Humanity!” she punctuated her remonstrations with further blows. Amaranth gently pulled the woman away from Samuel. Kyla clung to Amaranth, crying with the release of fear and pain.

“Me?” Samuel asked incredulously.

Kyla sniffed, composing herself. “Yes, You. The Protestant Movement of Resonants was formed because your compatriots thought the Grand Lodge had you disappeared for asking the wrong questions. Of course, the Grand Lodge, in their arrogance, didn’t help matters by refusing to address the issue. They thought you had simply gone rogue.”

“Glad to see I was such a convenient excuse.” Samuel drawled.

“What do you mean?”

“That was a fire long smouldering in the lodge. There was always a muttering of malcontent, considering it was the only body in which the Continentals still held a majority. Remember the patrol which tried to abduct me when I landed?”

Kyla’s brow furrowed in thought “Vaguely…” She admitted.

“Paid off by Continental factions trying to get accommodations out of High Lord Anderson.” Samuel explained.

Amaranth gave an ‘oh’ of understanding. “So that’s probably why they tried to herd me off too.”

Kyla looked at the girl in blank incomprehension. “They did what?!

“Mmm… Upon hearing I was to be the next Bride of Tyris, they tried to take me into custody.” Amaranth explained innocently. “It was the Protestants who distracted them long enough for father to fly me out of there.”

“Fly?” Samuel echoed

“Lord Dumat, remember?”

“Oh yeah, Angels.”

Amaranth shook her head, her smile slightly cheeky. “Oh, he can fly himself you know.”

Kyla and Samuel shared a look. Kyla shook her head, before returning her attention to Samuel. “So where WERE you?”

Samuel sighed resignedly. “Hell.”

“Be serious.”

“I am. I was in the Hells. Apparently Maou needed a resonant she could rely on to try and do something for her.” Samuel explained.

“But why you?” Kyla asked in exasperation.

“If I had a gold coin for every time I asked myself that question in the past couple of years…” Samuel drawled. “I have no fucking idea why me. Let’s call it serendipity and leave it there, please, for the sake of my fucking sanity.”

“Language. And why so long? And how?”

Yumi shimmered into existence next to Samuel. Kyla gasped.

“Cheshire! Samuel, Amaranth, Run!” She screamed. Samuel looked at Kyla in confused surprise, before giving Yumi’s paw a squeeze.

“It’s fine, Ambassador. You probably don’t remember, but you introduced us. And plus, what could you do that they couldn’t?” Yumi stared at Kyla with her signature smug grin. Kyla however, simply looked uncomprehendingly at the Cheshire.

“Nyaa, You don’t recognise me, Kyla-sama?” Yumi drawled in a fair replication of her earlier Neko disguise.

“Yumi!” Kyla cried in revelation. “All that time and you…”

“I told you I’d get him… Just not why…” Yumi offered.

“Ten years, Yumi… I told you I’d skin you, but now I think I’ll spend the next five years at you with a cheese grater…” Kyla snarled, leaping at the Cheshire. Yumi simply disappeared, and Kyla stumbled into the empty space she once occupied.

“We both had our orders, Kyla. If it makes you feel any better the time wasn’t my idea, wasn’t Maou’s idea… We didn’t make the Hells, we just live there, and time’s… funny between this world and there.” Yumi explained, shimmering into being in mid-air, seemingly unbothered by gravity. “I’ll say I’m sorry if you like…”

“Don’t bother, Yumi… Just… Just keep the hell away from me.” Kyla snapped, glaring at the Cheshire.

“Don’t you think you’re being a trifle unfair, excellency?” Samuel criticized. “I hardly heard you cursing my father’s name for keeping me here for the years I spent in Caladon.”

“That’s… Different!” Kyla cried.

“I can’t believe I’m actually agreeing with him, but Samuel’s right. You had the opportunity to know Samuel as a man, for however brief a time.” Amaranth said, taking Kyla by the shoulders. “It’s more than most women get to see of their sons, and much more than most will ever be able to acknowledge. Do you think I never wonder about who my real mother was? What she was like? What her hopes and dreams were? I’m only blessed to know father because we are of the Line of Dumat, and by some miracle of birth, I happen to be the next Bride of Tyris. Otherwise I’d just be another priestess in a chancel somewhere, probably having continuance with some paladin or Noble or Landholder I’d never see again, bearing a child which might or might not ever have the chance to call me mother, depending on how quickly the Church called me back after the birth, and even if he or she did, it would be alongside all the other women at the Abbey, as I called all mother in my childhood. This is the duty of our lives. This is the Commandment of The God.”

“I was so afraid…” Kyla sobbed.

“Ambassador Kyla, knowing you are my mother is a secret pride I will hold all my days, no matter how far apart we are.” Samuel said sincerely. “You are someone I have always admired, even without knowing our shared blood.”

Kyla smiled at Samuel, wiping the tears from her cheeks. “Thank you Sam. And… Yumi… It’s I who owe you an apology. I’m sorry. Truly.”

“Not your fault you humans are tapped.” Yumi said, but her smile was gracious, not smug.

“Come on, your Excellency. Father tells me the baths of House Caladon are the envy of the Westerlands.” Amaranth entreated. “Won’t you join me in finding out?”

“Why yes, your Reverence, that does sound nice…” Kyla murmured, a soft smile on her face. Samuel breathed a sigh of relief as the two women departed, leaving him alone in the office with the Cheshire.

“Thanks for having my back there, Sam.” Yumi murmured, her face suddenly next to his ear. Samuel jumped slightly.

“That’s going to take some getting used to.” He murmured. “Hey Yumi, did you mean that?”

“Mean what?” She queried, paws sliding across his shoulders.

“Was it just duty for you? Just orders? You don’t need to spare my feelings, as you’ve seen, we humans kind of take it that duty’s the going concern, regardless of how we feel about it.”

Samuel felt her paws freeze on his shoulders. “I-it can be… i-if that’s what you p-prefer” she stammered, trying to keep the nonchalance in her voice.

Samuel turned around, looking deeply into her feral eyes. “This is new for me, Yumi, I won’t lie… but… I don’t think I do want it to be duty. You told me you wanted me, needed me… and… I felt it.” He slid his hands around her waist. “I don’t want that feeling to be a lie.”

“Y-you don’t have to make such a big deal about it…” She blustered, her cheeks reddening, as Samuel bent to meet her lips hungrily with his own.

“Care for a small one?” Samuel overheard one guard say to another.

“Think I’m gonna give up on the drink, thanks all the same.” The second replied.

“Oh? Why’s that?”

“You didn’t hear?”

“Hear what?”

“Baron Beastmaster and Lord Dumat just had it out in the courtyard.”

“Oh, good biff was it?”

“Tyris be glorified! Lord Dumat done sprouted wings at one point and started blasting him with divine power!”

“So we’re another Baron down then?”

“That’s the thing, Baron Charles… He… He just shrugged it off, and then grabbed Lord Dumat by the leg and done slammed him onto the ground!”

“…You sure you don’t need one then?”

“You know what? I think you might be right.”

Samuel chuckled as he heard a flask being unscrewed, before heading towards the dining hall. Yumi had declined his invitation to dinner, her discomfiture at so many humans in one place clearly evident. Entering the hall, he saw Charles and Lloyd with their arms about each other, singing drunkenly.

“Samuel!” Charles roared expansively. “Come drink!”

“You two have sorted out your Theological differences then?” Samuel queried, taking the offered tankard and drinking deeply, before filling his plate.

“I’m forced to leave the exact positioning of Ammit and where her worship falls in the Pax to the Conclave of the Faithful, since She is clearly of sufficient authority to stymie my abilities.” Lloyd admitted with a slight slur. “As to the legitimacy of the barony, that’s the High Lord’s purview, and as Kyla pointed out, there are no High Lords right now!”

“Here’s to serendipitous anarchy.” Charles toasted.

“Amen.” Lloyd replied.

“You two are going to have sore heads in the morning.” Kyla warned, sipping demurely at a goblet.

“We had sore heads before.” Charles corrected. “Did you see the fight?”

“Missed it, thankfuly.”

“If I remember correctly, Sam still throws a punch much faster than you, you ox.” Lloyd mocked.

Charles flailed dismissively “He probably cheated with rezzy-nance”

Jessie sat at the far end of the table, clucking her tongue as Seti attempted to sneak the sprouts from his plate and shaking her head with an amused smile.

“Chamberlain, you’ll drink with us, won’t you?” Charles entreated

“And miss out on all the fun I’ll have making your morning miserable? No thank you, My Lord.” Jessie giggled.

“Women!” Charles sighed.

“I’ve been meaning to ask…” Samuel began, taking another deep draught of his tankard. “…This is bloody good, by the way, what is it?”

“The bees call it ‘Mead’, it’s made from honey.” Jessie explained, delicately eating her own meal.

“Thanks Jess. Motherhood agrees with you, by the way.” Samuel complimented the Taurean, who smiled beatifically at the praise. “Anyway, what’s the significance of a Crisis of Faith?”

Lloyd made a noise, taking a deep draught of his tankard. “That is a conversation that does not require so many ears, unfortunately.” He stated, lurching to his feet and tracing his arms in front of him. Golden glyphs danced unsteadily between his hands.

“Please Lloyd, allow me.” Charles offered, placing a hand on Lloyd’s arm, before standing himself.

“Clear and Lock the room!” He ordered, his voice booming with authority. Jessie made to collect Seti, but was held by Charles’s gesture.

“Not you Jess.” He murmured.

Servants and guards all discretely retired, the sound of doors closing and bolts being drawn evident in the hushed silence.

“Now that’s a much easier option.” Lloyd admitted. “A Crisis of the Faith is essentially worldwide martial law. Think of it as a blanket writ of conscription which covers every human in the world. All men are pressed to the Faith Militant, All women take holy orders, and the Grand Lodge is disbanded and Resonants come under command of the High Priestesses as Adjutants.”

“Fuck. So… how does society re-establish itself afterwards?” Samuel asked.

“It doesn’t.” Kyla replied. “There have been two Crisises of Faith declared since the advent of the Pax Deus. Both took over a century before Church control over secular governance was lifted. If not for the High Priestesses hoarding technology with the rest of the Resonants, we’d be living in mud huts and ploughing fields with sticks.”

“Surely our Holy Mother Church isn’t that restrictive.” Amaranth objected.

“If you ever get the opportunity, Amaranth, look at the libraries of the Grand Lodge, assuming there’s anything left of it. I thought we kept that information against extinction, but after hearing that, I’m wondering if it wasn’t just a safeguard against one of these Crises.” Samuel replied.

Amaranth turned back to her goblet, frowning in thought. Charles stood raising his tankard.

“Lloyd, for the love I bear you, brother. Forgive me this, but this is the first time in many years that what remains of House Caladon has all sat and shared a meal, and I have a fear within me that it may indeed be the last.” He took a drink, before walking around the table, putting his arms around Jessie and Seti. “This is my wife, Jessie. Whom I love.” Charles began simply, raising her hand to his mouth and kissing it. Jessie looked up at him in shock and wordless adoration. “And this is my son, Seti. In whom I am well pleased.” He toustled the little boy’s hair, eliciting a giggle.

Lloyd, Amaranth and Kyla looked at the baron with shocked expressions. Samuel stood. “This is my Mother, Kyla.” He began. “And these are my brothers, Lloyd and Charles. I thank Tyris, that I am made richer for knowing them.”

Lloyd looked helplessly at Samuel. “I can’t…” he whispered. “It is Blasphemy.”

“This is my father, Lloyd.” Came Amaranth’s musical voice, where she crossed to the blond man, kissing him gently upon the cheek. “And my Uncles, Samuel and Charles, who are indeed, fine, fine men.”

“You shame me, Amaranth?” Lloyd asked.

“I Love you, Father.” Amaranth corrected. “And The God who loves us all, will forgive all if done in the name of Love.”

“This is my family…” Lloyd choked. “And may The God’s blessing be ever upon them.”

“Amen.” Kyla finished, smiling warmly as the Caladonians returned to their seats, relishing in the closeness so blessedly restored to them.

“There was an angel in his bed!” A servant hissed from a room as Samuel walked down to the great hall.

“You’re seeing things. He is Lord Dumat.” Another barked sharply.

“I know what I saw!”

A sharp slap, and a brief cry

“No. You were seeing things. Carry on with your work.” Came the brusque reply. Samuel shook his head, continuing down the hall. A Lizard-woman paused where she was changing linens in Lloyd’s abandoned room, inclining her head gravely as a second rubbed at a reddened cheek. Samuel returned the nod, before leaving the apartments.

Such loyalty Charles commanded, that even his servants instinctively maintained the veil of normalcy in the face of such upheaval. Samuel was amazed. Not even his father could attest to such. A guard pulled the door of the main hall open with a deferent half bow.

“Prince Samuel, of House Caladon.” A cudgel-bearing Director of Ceremony intoned.

“You’re looking well, Niles.” Samuel murmured.

“I’m looking old Sam, but the lie is appreciated.” Niles replied with a slight chuckle.

“We welcome our Brother. Let him step forward.” Charles intoned.

Samuel walked towards the High Seat, hearing murmurs from the landholders about him as they looked at him with uncertainty. Ceremoniously, he dropped to a knee before Charles.

“My Lord Baron and Brother. I have returned Home.” Samuel intoned.

“We acknowledge you, and do declare from this day forth that you be our Heir Apparent, should death or illness remove us from our duties.” Charles boomed.

Samuel looked up in surprise. “I’ll get you for that, Charlie.” He muttered.

The murmurs became louder, a voice was heard from their midst.

“My Lord, are you… quite sure this is Prince Samuel?” A tall, slender landholder asked, his black hair streaked with silver at the temples.

“Don’t you trust your own eyes, Gregory?” Charles asked with slight amusement.

“Hang it all, my Lord, I do, and that’s the problem. He hasn’t aged a day since he left Caladon!” Gregory cried incredulously.

“If your memory serves you that well, Sir, perhaps I need remind you of another fact…” Samuel said, calling upon the Logos.

LEVITATE

He felt himself rise from the ground as the power of the glyph raised him up. The assembled landholders gasped and cried out in shock and awe.

“I am Resonant, gentlemen. Space and Time are my playthings. It did not behove me to move through them as an unawakened man, so I did not. That is all you need know.”

Dispersing the glyph, Samuel settled to the floor, before turning and sitting to the right of Charles.

“Are there any further objections?” Charles called, only to be met with silence, punctuated by a suppressed cough here and there.

“Good, moving on…” Charles murmured. Jessie flipped through a sheaf of parchment.

“The Barony of Dixon seeks leave to mount incursion into our territory to reprise against a Mamono attack.” Jessie stated neutrally.

“Denied! Denied with a side of if I hear to the contrary that they’re assaulting Mamono on my lands, I’ll grant the Council of Matriarchs rights to host a punitive force within our borders to sack them.” Charles yelled.

“A trifle harsh, my lord?” A portly landholder muttered in concern. Charles levelled a nonplussed glare in his general direction.

“Lord Phillip was told, numerous times, that his border landholders were breaching the Pax, and the greasy fuck hasn’t done shit about it. There has been an endless stream of Mamono seeking asylum and indenturehood within our lands from Dixon. The Council of Matriarchs has contributed generously to their welfare, but if it continues I will be forced to levy you landholders to make up the losses.”

The landholders cried out in objection.

“Then I am certain you will not be shy about spreading the word to the Mamono on your holdings. If one of them is so much as sneezed at by someone wearing Dixonic heraldry, I want to know that day.”

“And the Goblins, my lord?” Another landholder queried.

“What Goblins?” Charles asked in surprise.

“The ants have allowed use of some unused tunnels for Goblin fossickers near the border of Dixon.” Jessie explained.

“That a fact. Are they recognised by the Council?”

“They are, Sire.”

“Do they pay us our Baronial tithe?”

“Reluctantly.”

“Then tell them they may rest in this House’s protection the same as any other. Perhaps the messenger could gently remind them that without the tithe, such protection would not be possible. Maybe that will make an improvement on ‘reluctantly’.”

Jessie made a few notes on the parchment, and the Landholders began to buzz with low conversation as the next item of business was passed to the Chamberlain.

“Nice display before, by the way.” Charles murmured to Samuel.

“Thanks. Figured it would be easier than having the ‘I was in Hell’ conversation over and over for the remainder of my natural life. What’s with naming me Heir Apparent?” Samuel hissed in reply.

“What, I’m going to name Seti Heir? The Pax still stands and this current melee in magisterium won’t last forever. I’d prefer my legacy to my family not be a memory of me screaming as I’m burned alive.”

Samuel sat back. “Fair point.” He conceded.

Jessie cleared her throat discretely, and Charles returned his attention to the Taurean. “Next item of business, the Master of Coin seeks leave to table an invest…” She began, before pausing as the door was flung open.

“My Lord Baron!” Lloyd cried, striding through the door, Amaranth trailing behind him.

“We Recognise Our Brother Lloyd, Lord of the Order of Dumat.” Charles intoned.

“Forgive me this breach of protocol, but an urgent matter has arisen.” Lloyd said. “I would request it be heard as a matter of substance.”

“Granted, all but the privy council are ordered to retire.”

“One day we’ll get to see the end of a day’s business in this court, and it’ll be a sure sign of the end of the world…” A grizzled, bearded landholder jested. Charles laughed, shooing the man along with his colleagues from the hall.

Lloyd looked around at the few remaining staff and officials of the house. “I would have your oaths of Silence on this, your honours and gentlemen.” Lloyd warned “And do not give them lightly, for I would rather you retire and live, than breach them and your lives be forfeit.”

Hans stepped forward slightly. “I am a simple man, My Lord Baron. My duties are humble and if Tyris will forgive me the presumption, I would have them remain so. I would retire against shouldering the burden of knowledge I do not want.”

Charles inclined his head to the Stablemaster. “You’re a smarter man than many, Hans. We grant you leave to retire without prejudice.”

“I would also retire, My Lord. The concept of ‘secret’ is largely alien to the hives, and I do not want the Queens thinking I am lying to them by withholding anything I may hear.” Craig interjected.

“Thank you for your forthrightness, Master of the Hives. You are also granted leave.” Charles said, gesturing to the leather-clad man.

The few remaining staff murmured slightly, but remained in place.

“Master of the Hives?” Samuel whispered to Charles askance

“A liaison with the insects. Craig’s got a real talent for it. It’s a shame his father couldn’t see the value in cultivating the relationship.” Charles replied.

“How do you keep them from…”

Charles gave a covert wink. “Five queens all rivals for his affection, they won’t steal him for fear another hive will simply take him off them as soon as he’s clear of the Pax.”

Samuel gave a low whistle of amazement. “You’re presenting a frighteningly convincing illusion of competency, My Lord.” He mocked.

Charles leaned over to cuff him on the shoulder. “Watch it, you.” He growled with a grin.

Lloyd waited for those remaining to settle, his eyes playing across every face.

“I have your oath then, gentlemen?”

Hands were raised in the sign of the sunburst. “As The God gives us strength, so do we swear.” Came the collective answer.

Lloyd nodded, gesturing for Amaranth to step forward. “Go ahead, my treasure.” He murmured earnestly.

Amaranth hesitantly moved forward, her eyes a little wild.

“Amaranth, you’ve sat on my knee while I conducted the business of this house. Why do you look like a deer about to bolt all of a sudden?” Charles asked gently

“It’s not that, My Lord Baron.” Amaranth began hesitantly. “I-I have had a visitation.”

“Oh? From whom?”

Amaranth gave Charles a level look. “My Lord, who am I again?”

“Oh. OH!” Charles leaned forward in interest. “We breathlessly await the words of Holy and Eternal Tyris.”

Amaranth cleared her throat. “It is time.”

Charles blinked. “That’s it?”

“That was all.”

“Eternal and Undisputed God of all Humanity… Never picked Him for taciturn.” Charles muttered, holding a hand beseechingly against the shocked gasps and cries from those remaining. “Sorry, sorry, I beg forgiveness for my impiety.”

“Granted, just try not to make such a habit of it uncle?” Amaranth drawled around the ghost of an impish grin.

“What does He mean, do you think?” Samuel mused.

“The only thing it could mean, He’s calling her to marriage.” Lloyd said simply, a hint of pride in his voice.

“The Most Holy is aware that the Cathedral Solar is essentially under siege right now, isn’t He?” Samuel burst incredulously.

“I do not presume to know the Mind of The God.”

Charles looked at Niles. “Director of Ceremony, do we have word from the chancel?”

Niles cleared his throat. “The Waygates are closed. The High Priestesses have retreated from the chancels to bolster the Brides of Tyris.”

“But we can open them?” Amaranth asked

“They cannot know how many Resonants have been pressed as Adjutants. They will see any attempt to breach the Cathedral as an attempt by the Commandants to force the declaration of a Crisis of Faith.” Samuel answered.

“How can you know that?”

Samuel sighed. “Because I know how they are trained.”

Lloyd gave an uncharacteristic curse. “How did it come to this?”

“Enough things happened in the right order, at the right time, you may as well ask how a rockslide happened, Lloyd.” Charles answered.

“Lloyd, do you know what’s required for the Rite of Marriage?” Samuel asked, tapping his lip in thought.

“Samuel no, surely you can’t be thinking…” Kyla interrupted

“I’m not seeing too many options here, Your Excellency.”

Lloyd frowned in thought. “It’s an elaborate and gaudy thing, but essentially the Bride, the Father of the Bride, A noble witness, a member of the Magisterium, and a resonant member of the church to stand as celebrant, usually a High Priestess…”

Samuel sat forward, eyes wide. “Usually?”

“Well an Arbiter or Adjutant has been known to stand in on the rare occasion where High Priestesses were unavailable…”

Samuel laughed. “We’ve got it. Name me Adjutant.”

“Be serious Samuel.”

“I’m dead serious, Lord Dumat. Either you do it now, or the Faith Militant will do it later once they convince the High Priestesses that a Crisis of Faith is the only option left.”

“I’m afraid I see your point.” Lloyd admitted, raising a hand towards Samuel. “Alright Samuel, by my Divine Authority, I do press you unto the Service of our Holy Mother Church as Adjutant. May you serve Her with the Humility and Devotion that is due to The God.”

“All Glory to the Most High.” Came the murmured response.

“I’m not happy about this, Samuel.” Lloyd grated warningly.

“Lloyd, I’m beginning to think he’s right.” Kyla admitted. “If The God is no longer speaking to the other Brides, then Amaranth could be the only person who could gainsay the Commandants, and the only way they’d listen to her is if she wore the rank of Bride.”

“I do have one objection.” Amaranth spoke up.

“Oh? Cold feet on your wedding day, your reverence?” Samuel quipped.

“Hardly. You, however, will not marry me wearing that.” Amaranth demanded, pointing at Samuel’s rustic garb.

Samuel sighed, glowering at Kyla. “You’ve been in her ear, haven’t you, your Excellency?”

“I plead the peace of Tyris.” Kyla murmured, a slight smile on her lips.

“You’re sure about this?” Kyla asked uncertainly, looking about at the ruins which surrounded them.

“Dead sure. This used to be a chancel. The grounds should still be consecrated.” Charles answered, reigning in his puffing horse inelegantly.

“Don’t saw at the poor bastard’s mouth Charles.” Samuel admonished. Charles shifted in his saddle, casting a dirty look over his shoulder at his brother.

“I like being on him about as little as he likes me being there, lay off.” Charles snapped, dismounting with a grunt.

Samuel chuckled slightly, slinging his leg over the horse and slipping easily to the ground.

“Lloyd, why don’t you help me tie the horses up somewhere they won’t panic and bolt, before I pop our brother in the face for being such a fucking show-off.” Charles grumbled. Lloyd nodded, hiding a smile as he loosened the girth on his own steed.

As the two brothers led the horses away, Samuel caught Amaranth by the arm.

“Amaranth, can I have a quick word?”

The blonde girl looked at him, her golden eyes questioning, as she allowed herself to be led away from Kyla, who was rummaging through their saddlebags.

“I’ve got a favour to ask. When Tyris appears, I need you to do something for me.” Samuel entreated.

“I’m not sure I follow, Samuel, but ask away.”

Samuel told her, and she lashed out at him, slapping him soundly across the face.

“You DARE…” She began, her face set in shocked indignation, hand raised for another strike.

Samuel caught her arm, pulling her face close to his “Listen to me!” he hissed. “We’ve got one chance to make this right. If you don’t do it, I will, and if I do it, we all likely die horribly. If you do it, we’ve got a chance.”

“A chance at what, that I would engage in such… Abomination!” She retorted

“A chance to make the world better. A chance at life. Real life. Not this hollow march of ritual we’ve all been subjected to for millennia.” Samuel pleaded “I believed in the Pax. Believed with all my heart and soul. I thought my brother mad with his talk of love… But I’ve seen it now. Seen what’s possible. What would I be if I didn’t take that chance?”

Amaranth pursed her lips. “Show me the glyph.”

Samuel showed her.

“Such a small thing…” Amaranth mused.

“A single flake of snow can set off an avalanche.” Samuel replied.

“Alright… But if my Husband gets angry, I’m pointing the finger straight at you.” She conceded.

“Wouldn’t have it any other way.” Samuel said with a grin.

“Are you two ready?” Kyla asked as she approached, her arms laden with various relics and unguents.

“Ready as I’ll ever be.” Samuel murmured, shifting under the weight of his formal garb.

“Oh stop fussing Sam, you look very smart.” Kyla chided.

“I look like a damn midwinter decoration.” Samuel retorted, reaching up to pull at one of the elaborate pauldrons on his shoulders.

“At least you’re not wearing a dress.” Charles muttered, slapping a hand against the kilt which comprised the lower half of his Baronial trappings as he joined them. “Why is the Hand of God the only one who gets to wear sensible clothes?”

Lloyd gave a slight smile. “Privilege of rank.”

“Fuck you.”

“Monstrosity”

“Don’t even joke about that, for fucks sake, we’re not so far removed from that sewage that I feel comfortable with that denunciation.” Charles snarled. Lloyd held out his hands placatingly.

“Forgive me, I meant nothing by it. To be honest I’m as nervous as the rest of you. Samuel, you sure you know the words?”

Samuel stepped out to face them. “Lloyd, I know the words to make the sun rise in the west and to spell my name in the stars of the Heavens. I’ve got this.”

He took a deep breath. “I hope…” he murmured, before closing his eyes and raising his hands.

“And Lo, did the Son of that which was, present with all humility his rightful progeny unto The God, that she may kneel in abject supplication to the True Master of Humanity.”

Lloyd stepped forward, Amaranth at his side, her arm held in his.

“And the people did with all reverence, speak the secret name of Tyris, that He may walk amongst them, yea, and e’en in that blessing of blessings be made manifest upon unworthy earth.”

“Hold on to something…” he whispered, calling upon the Logos and steeling himself for the answer.

T Y R I S

The glyph positively rang with power as it was made manifest, and reality itself ripped open before them. The shattering blast of choral voices drove them all to their knees as a figure stepped from that radiant hole in reality. Clothed in the very light of the sun, its brilliance threatened to blind them all. Kyla screamed, throwing her hands over her face, and Charles pantingly grabbed Lloyd by the arm.

“Do something or we’re all dead!” He gasped, his skin reddening by the instant.

Lloyd forced himself to his feet.

“And the father of the most fortunate did beg The God that his yoke be gentle amongst the people, for they were worthy to be witness to His Wonders” He intoned with angelic authority. The light remained blinding, but the furnace blast of the being’s sheer presence no longer threatened to annihilate them.

The God looked around. Turning His head to Lloyd, The God expressed his surprise at the surrounds.

“It is necessary, O my God, though we do beseech Thy forgiveness that Thou art called to such rude a place.” Lloyd begged, his eyes fixed on the ground before him.

The God was indifferent, The God had been subjected to worse by necessity. And the beauties of nature and His creation were not unwelcome to His eyes.

Amaranth also stood, walking towards The God with complete trust in her golden eyes. “Today, the purpose of my life is fulfilled.” She breathed.

The God looked upon her, touching her face with a hand clothed in the stuff of stars. The God found her beautiful, as beautiful as the first day of Her life.

“And The God did take unto him that scion of holy blood as wife, that His Power and Glory be manifest still in the world.” Samuel intoned.

The God held Amaranth’s hands in His, the full force of His radiant presence engulfing the girl.

“Now or never…” Samuel murmured. “Lord Dumat!” He called. Lloyd looked at him incomprehendingly.

“Want to see something totally fucked up?” Samuel grated, a death’s head grin on his features. “Amaranth, now!”

The God’s head snapped up, and He frowned. This was not the ritual which He had given to His children.

“It is not fair, my Divine Husband, that my face be uncovered to Thee, whilst Thy glory shields Thee from my gaze…” She entreated, raising a hand to the solar corona of The God’s face.

REVELATION

The light shattered in a starburst of soundless noise. The form of The God began to change, A horned crown sprung from His head, a tail swept against legs upon which runic symbols began to trace their silver presence. Black wings sprouted from His back, and he gasped, revealing a mouth, fanged, below crimson eyes which blazed with inner fire.

“Incubus!” Lloyd howled, snatching Amaranth away from the transformed being.

The Incubus looked at his clawed hands and sighed. “So long… So long and I return to this.”

“Not just Incubus, Lloyd! Incubus Primus! The God is the Husband of Maou!” Samuel cried, levitating himself clear of the being with a resonant glyph.

“Most Unclean!” Lloyd hissed, spreading his arms out before him. “You dare impersonate the Most High?!”

“You don’t want to do that, Dumat.” The Incubus said warningly. Lloyd curled his lip.

“His Seal He tore…” Lloyd intoned

“I’m warning you!”

“…And to the floor…”

“You don’t know what you’re doing!”

“…He cast His tie to Heaven, Signifying HOLY WAR!”

The skies shattered as dozens of angels burst forth from above them. Swooping to earth, they fell in perfect formation behind Lloyd. A pause, as they looked upon the Incubus, who stood staring at them impassively. As one, they cast their weapons to earth, kneeling and pressing their foreheads to the ground.

“W-What?” Lloyd gasped, before crying out and clutching at his torso.

The Incubus shook his head sadly. “Why didn’t you listen, you stupid Human… Now you’ve drunk too deeply.”

Lloyd screamed, tearing his black tunic from his body. With a bloody ripping noise, six pairs of white wings sprouted from his back. His skin began to crawl with golden light where it traced angelic runes over his exposed flesh.

“I am The God. Who I was is irrelevant.” The Incubus said with a note of regret as he watched Lloyd’s agonized transmutation “In the moment of my Ascension I became Tyris. I have no other name under Heaven… And now… You are Mine in truth.”

Lloyd’s changed form rose, towering well over his other brothers.

“And to think…” his voice echoed, his blazing eyes widening. “…I hesitated.”

“I name you Lucifer. Star of the Morning and Bearer of My Divine Light. Know me, Seraph.” Tyris ordered.

“You are God.” Lloyd, now Lucifer, answered simply, sinking to his knees and staring at Tyris in abject adoration.

“Father!” Amaranth shrieked, throwing her arms around the impassive angel.

“Oh my sweet girl… That which he was, he is no more. Ariael did warn him.” Tyris offered gently.

Amaranth turned tear-streaked eyes to Samuel. “You did this!” She shrieked, throwing herself at him, halted in her furious charge by Tyris’s demonic form, which held her not ungently as she flailed and kicked. “Heretic! Apostate!” She wailed, struggling against Tyris’s grip. Kyla darted forward, pulling the girl from the Incubus and stroking her hair with comforting murmurs as she wailed into her chest. She looked at Samuel with quiet fury.

“Would you destroy the world?” Kyla hissed.

“Destroy? Mother, I’m trying to save us!” Samuel cried in exasperation “Maou’s power wanes, and The God became so caught by the mantle of His Divine Omnipotence that only the Logos could bring him back!”

“Back, forward… It’s all pointless and directionless when existence is as clay.” Tyris murmured, “And the boy does speak the truth. The Brides became as burbling infants to Mine eyes. I humoured their prattle, but did not see the import that they spoke of…” grasping at his horned head and giving a bestial snarl. “This linear time is agony! I must assume a more… Appropriate form.”

Tyris shimmered, and in his place stood a tall warrior, broad of shoulder and brow, clad in impressive golden armour. His black hair flowed down his shoulders, and clear eyes stood above an aquiline nose. He sighed with relief, his mighty armour creaking with the movement.

“Better…” Tyris admitted. “Now I can start thinking like a human.”

“So who are we talking to now?” Charles asked, his arms folded across his chest.

“Someone I was, or someone I will be…” Tyris offered, His brow furrowed in thought. “It’s difficult to see where exactly I exist in time, after being beyond it for so long.”

“Are you still…”

“Still me? Still Tyris? Still The God? Yes to all of them.” Tyris smiled “Amaranth, please, will you come here a moment?”

The girl stood, sniffing, wiping her nose as she suspiciously made her way to stand before Tyris.

“Your father’s transmutation would have happened sooner or later. It is the fate of those who bear the mantle of Dumat. Don’t blame your uncle for what was meant to be.”

“What is he?” Amaranth asked slightly sulkily, looking to where Samuel stood dejectedly watching their conversation.

“Just a man. Just a man in the right place, with the right abilities, at the right time.” Tyris said simply, placing a mailed hand on her arm in comfort. “He’ll never be remembered in legend, Not like Amaranth, who formed the Heroes of the New World. Not like Horus, the Holy Magistrate of Ammit, who brought the Scales of Ma’at to mankind once more. Not like Lucifer, First amongst the Angelic Host, who anointed the new Sovereigns by My will.”

“How…” Amaranth gasped.

“I am The God, Amaranth. I can hold Time to my breast in all her permutations like a purblind puppy.” The God Answered. “For all the wonders yet to come, the world will not remember him. But around such men, worlds are compelled to turn.”

“Thank you, Most Holy.” Samuel breathed. The God looked at him with amused surprise.

“Do you even know what you’re thanking Me for?” Tyris asked, releasing Amaranth and turning towards the resonant.

“Amaranth, Charles, Lloyd… They’re all destined for glory and greatness. But You’ve given me something more.”

Tyris smiled “And what is that?”

Samuel returned the smile. “Freedom. The freedom to be who I want, for as long as I want…” He cast a resonant glyph, and Yumi the Cheshire fell with a yowl from empty space into his arms. “…With whoever I want.” Kissing Yumi, he turned to Charles. “After all of it, you were right.”

“Course I fucking was.” Charles murmured, yet a soft smile played upon his face.

“What do you think you’re doing?” Yumi demanded, struggling in Samuel’s grip. Samuel kissed her again, and her struggles subsided.

“Don’t ever think you can hide from me, love. Resonant, remember?” He chuckled.

Yumi gave a slight pout. “Alright… But only if you say it properly.”

“I love you.”

“Better.” She said with her usual smug grin, returning his kiss.

“Isn’t this just a picture?” A woman’s voice came from behind them. They turned with a gasp, to see Maou, clad in a shimmering gown of midnight blue, walking towards them. Tyris’s eyes lit up, and a touch of his earlier radiance began to shine through.

“My love…” He gasped.

“Oh Tyris… This is something new…” Maou said with a saucy grin, opening her arms to him. Tyris flung himself into them, and the two kissed passionately. Kyla gave a slight scream as the ground began to shake underneath them.

“Careful, Tyris, this world is barely strong enough to bear both our weights without you losing control on me.” Maou chided gently, stroking a long, pale finger along The God’s olive cheek.

“After so many millennia, can you blame me?” Tyris chuckled.

“No… Although I will insist on you continuing later… And I do expect a few centuries of attention to make up for the millennia alone.” Maou rejoined, a mocking pout on her sensual mouth. “Besides, we’re not done here yet.”

“Of course.” Tyris admitted, extricating himself reluctantly from her embrace. “Samuel, it’s time.”

“Time for what, Most Holy?” Samuel queried.

“Oh bless him, we’ve all been so sickeningly lovey-dovey that it’s just fled his tiny mortal brain!” Maou mocked.

“Mother!” Yumi yowled in objection.

“Sorry Yumi. The whole reason you revealed Tyris’s true nature, Human. There’s something of ours you need to fix, remember?”

Samuel gave an ‘ah’ of understanding. “Sorry. I had forgotten.” He pondered for a moment. Casting a few resonant glyphs, he weighed up the information the Logos was presenting him.

“I’m going to need something else. It needs to be three.” He said enigmatically.

Maou slapped her forehead “Oh merciful fates.” She moaned. “Was it really just Her absence which wrecked it in the first place?”

Charles frowned. “Her?” he echoed.

“Yes Horus. Her.” Tyris answered. “Call your Mistress.”

“I… um… Well…” Charles murmured abashedly. Tyris laughed.

“I’d be more inclined to annihilate you for heresy for thinking you could hide the fact from Me, Horus, over your worship of Ammit.”

“I’m only Human, Most Holy.” Charles offered with a bashful grin, before crossing his arms over his shoulders. “Now forgive me if this is a little rough, Jessie’s the ecclesiast…”

“Homage to you, Ammit, Mistress of Eternity, Dread Queen of Justice, whose names are manifold, whose forms are holy, you being of hidden form in the temples, whose Ka is holy, who proved the truth-speaking of Osiris before His enemies on the day of the weighing of words….

“Really Horus?” Ammit snarled, bursting into reality with a shrieking thump of displaced air. “You beseech me on ground consecrated to Tyris?”

“I didn’t exactly give him a choice, Ancient One.” Tyris explained.

Ammit fixed the Golden armoured figure with a level look, straightening the white tunic she had clothed her amalgam form in.

“Tyris.” Ammit acknowledged The God in the same tone one would acknowledge a precocious toddler holding something expensive.

“You’re looking well, Ancient One” Maou offered conversationally. “But don’t you think the outfit is a little…”

“A little what?” Ammit pressed, her crocodilian eyes narrowing and her mantrap maw gaping slightly.

“Well you’re generously endowed below the waist dear, and it’s a little distracting.”

“You couldn’t handle me, Maou.” Ammit rejoined, though her maw curved slightly in a smile and she gave a slight flirt of the hem of her tunic. She held her paws briefly to the side of her head, giving a slight growl of frustration. “Tyris, do something about them.” She ordered, pointing a talon at the host of angels still prostrated on the ground.

“Is there something wrong, Oh my Queen?” Charles asked with a note of concern.

“Can’t you hear them, Horus?” Ammit grated, turning her attention on the man.

“Truly, Dread Queen, I hear nothing.”

“Humans…” Ammit sighed in frustration. “Seriously Tyris, send them home. Now. If I have to hear ‘Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty’ once more I’m going to start eating them.”

Tyris held his hands up in mock surrender. “Return, My servants.” He ordered simply. The angels rose to their feet, and all but two flashed from existence in a burst of golden light.

“Lucifer, Ariael, do you defy me?” The God asked sternly.

“No, Oh my God.” Lucifer’s voice echoed. “But I am compelled to remain. I made a promise… A promise of love and of protection. A promise which bids me yet remain.”

Amaranth’s golden eyes widened. “You remember!” She gasped.

“No… But I feel…” Lucifer admitted. “I am… More… and yet I have lost much of what I once was. But I know that you are precious to me.”

Amaranth flung herself into the Seraphs arms, and Lucifer gently enfolded her in arm and wings. Ariael put her arm about Lucifer’s waist.

“Now more than ever, Oh Most High, he is my heart, and I cannot be where he is not.” She explained simply.

Tyris sighed, putting his head into the palm of a mailed hand. “What have I kept from them?”

“It needed to be done, dear. The Pax, the indentureships, all of it. We had war, and the rebuilding from war… Now, maybe we can have peace.” Maou murmured, touching his other hand briefly with her own.

“Peace… True Peace…” Tyris echoed. “Even I have never known it.”

“Touching. Truly. None of this explains why I’m here.” Ammit said brusquely.

“Samuel sensed you held the missing piece of the puzzle to solve the Mamono’s… problem, Dread Queen.” Charles explained deferentially to the Goddess.

Ammit looked at Samuel, who was staggered slightly as her presence struck him, before turning back to Charles. “I already gave you the answer to that, Horus.”

Charles frowned. “Forgive me, Dread Queen, but I don’t understand.”

Ammit gave a low cry of despair. “Your son, you great dolt!”

Maou and Tyris both gasped simultaneously.

“I knew…” Maou began

“…Nothing of this!” Tyris finished.

“Of course not. Do you think I allow you to know all my workings?” Ammit snarled incredulously, allowing some of her power to radiate. The humans quailed and even the Divines seemed taken aback slightly. “I have given you eons to work this out, through all of your incarnations and yet you still refuse to see what is right in front of you!” Ammit raised a taloned paw, and ripped a hole in reality with a violent swipe. “But no longer. I, for one, am done with waiting.” Reaching through it, she gripped something, and with a rough pull, Jessie emerged from the tear, falling with Seti in her arms to the ground.

“What…” Jessie gasped

“Again!” Seti squealed, giggling with glee

“No again, Seti!” Jessie admonished, panting as she took in the impossibility before her.

“Hullo Love.” Charles offered sheepishly.

“Charles… What in the name of….” Jessie cried, rushing to his side.

“Oh here’s a conundrum, who does she invoke?” Maou jested.

“Leave my Priestess alone.” Ammit said shortly

“Your Priestess, My Creation, Ammit.” Maou rejoined.

“Daddy, who’s the golden man?” Seti demanded, pulling at Charles’s sleeve.

“That is The God, Tyris. Divine Lord of all Humanity.” Charles said, as the golden armoured figure stared open mouthed at the Taurean boy.

“Oh. Can I have down now?” Seti asked innocently, turning to Jessie, who lowered him to the ground, keeping firm hold on his hand.

“How did you…” Tyris began

Maou too was studying the boy, “…It’s almost like…” She murmured. Seti, not used to such attention, turned his head shyly into Jessie’s hand.

Samuel started laughing.

Human, Mamono, and God all turned to look incredulously at the mirth stricken resonant.

“Oh… No please… We could have… All of this… All of it and it was them all along! I’m dying! I’m actually going to die…” He gasped between howls.

Ammit rolled her crocodilian eyes, walking over to Samuel and gripping him by the hair, pulled him upright.

“Then be very, very sure your soul is prepared, human, and Know who I Am.”

Samuel’s laughter died in his throat as terror seized him. “F-Forgive me, Divine one.” He gasped.

“Don’t bully My Humans, Ammit.” Tyris admonished softly

“Mine after death, Tyris. All of them. You too Maou. And I don’t like being laughed at.” She snarled, releasing Samuel.

“I-I meant no offense, Holy and Divine Majesties.” Samuel explained desperately. “It was laugh or start screaming. Maou can tell you how poorly I deal with immensity.”

“It’s true, I thought his brain was going to leak out of his ears and make a run for it when I was explaining this whole business to him.” Maou admitted.

“I didn’t permit you to take one of my Humans into the Hells, Maou.” Tyris objected sternly.

“Let’s not bicker in front of the children, dear.” Maou replied nonchalantly.

Samuel ignored the near homely domesticity of these colossi, the mind simply refused to accept the parallel. He walked to where his brother stood with wife and child. “The Logos said ‘Three’. I assumed it meant that the Gods had to work in concert.”

He put his hands on Jessie and Charles’s shoulders. “But through everything. Through the wars and machinations, through the terror and the grief and the tragedy, through the love and the hate and the sheer bloody-minded insanity of life, out of all possible solutions in the infinite fractals of reality… It’s them… Just them.”

Samuel called upon the Logos, and felt it respond. “I see…” He murmured. “Amaranth, look.”

Amaranth brushed a length of platinum blonde hair from her face as she reluctantly left her father’s arms, walking towards the group. Her eyes went wide as Samuel shared the glyphs with her in the manner of resonants.

“Could it be?” She gasped in astonishment.

“I think so…”

“It’s… big though… I don’t think even with the two of us we can invoke this and remain sane… or… in one peice.” She murmured doubtfully.

Samuel smiled. “Then let’s get some help with it.”

“Twenty five of our bretheren lie dead, Quan Yu!” A dishevelled female resonant screamed at the Aestenlander.

“And it is on you! This loss rests entirely on the shoulders of your hubris and pride!” Quan Yu retorted. “You played a game this once-honoured Lodge had no business in involving itself in!”

“We only wanted to protect our people!” Another continental cried

“And what happened, jackhole? Trying to kidnap a future Bride? Why not just declare War on the Holy Church and make heretics of us all?!” Ansgar roared

“Et ees a dark day, but Magisterium ees rocked by zis, ze whole city ees on the brink of utter anarchy!” Jacques added.

“The question is, what the fuck d’we do about it? We’ve got a week, maybe two before a Crisis of the Faith is declared and we’re all pressed to Adjutant.” Harold insisted

“You men will be, I think the mantle of a High Priestess would look good on me.” The woman who once sat in the Senior Warden’s chair said with a smirk.

“Oh there’s the fuckin’ humility we all have come to know so w…” Bruce began, before pausing, straining as if to hear something.

“Catgirl got your tongue Bruce?” Someone mocked from somewhere in the crowd.

“Shut it cunt… Listen!” The Australian demanded.

“Is that…”

“It can’t be…”

“Samuel.” Quan Yu breathed.

“Told you we had nozink to do wiz zat.” Jacques replied bitterly.

“Shut de fuck up, deviant.” Hawa barked, straining to hear.

The ‘voice’ repeated the instruction.

“Could he be asking what I think he’s asking?”

“It is Heresy! This is clearly a machination of the Demons!” A pious resonant, already clothed in the mantle of an Adjutant denounced.

A ‘sense’ of frustration. A ringing sound and a flash of golden light, and a six winged angel burst into the air above them.

“Obey him, as you would obey The God” The angel intoned, its distinctly male voice making many cry out in surprise. “For Yea, The God hath instructed him to beseech this work unto thee.”

With another flash, the angel vanished from the crumbling remains of the lodge in which the resonants stood.

“Sounds like your denunciation is without merit, brother.” Quan Yu said softly. “Now bretheren, as a gesture of this fragile truce, join with me in this undertaking.”

Reality itself began to warp as the resonants focused their combined wills upon the Words of the Logos.

And the Word was of Humanity

And the Word was with Humanity

And creation itself could not stand against it.

“Come on then” the Paladin gasped, clutching at the shallow gash in his side. “I’ve had continuance partners who hit harder!”

The Hellhound Bull gave a low ‘roooo’ of amusement, fire and sulphur blazing in its eyes, its night black fur blending seamlessly with its obsidian skin. With a slavering snarl, it lept.

The brilliance of the Benedictus illuminated the Paladin’s sword arm, and the Hellhound yelped where the incandescence grazed its flank. Landing gracefully, it snarled its displeasure at the light wound.

“By the Grace of Tyris, you fucker…” The paladin growled, holding his blade in expert hands.

The Hellhound gave a short, weaving charge, before launching itself near vertically, planting hands like taloned paws against the Paladin’s chest and driving him to the ground. Breath whooshed from the paladin’s lungs, and he sought to retain his grip on the blade.

The Hellhound opened its mouth in a gape, elongated canines dripping with saliva, its humanoid features barely recognisable in that bestial and wordless anticipation of the kill. It slammed its taloned hand hard against the Paladin’s wrist, sending the blade skittering away.

The Paladin spat defiantly at the Hellhound. “Do it then, Bull. Send me to the Heavens.” He squeezed his eyes closed, bracing himself for the agony of those teeth in his throat…

…Suddenly, the weight lifted from him. The Hellhound was looking at him, but a mixture of shock and confusion was in eyes which before had burned with only feral hunger and hatred.

“W-Why…” It grated.

“What?” The Paladin scrambled to his feet.

“W-Why am… I Fighting you?” The hellhound asked.

“Because it’s what you Bulls do. Now stop playing with me, beast.”

“I… I am thinking… I… I don’t want to do that anymore.” The hellhound spoke haltingly, deliberately. “I am thinking… I want to go home.”

“You don’t kill twelve oxen and maul their cowherd then just go home, bull!” The Paladin exclaimed incredulously.

“I’m… Sorry…” The bull said, wonder and revelation written on its face. “I can feel it! I know sorry! I know…”

The Paladin shared the bull’s amazement. After all, everyone knew they were near mindless and had no sense of pity or mercy, let alone remorse.

“Come, Church-Man. I take you to Matriarch. She will give repayment for what I have done.” The Hellhound beckoned.

“What kind of trick is this?” The Paladin demanded.

“No trick. Give promise. Will walk in front of you with sword at back, if church-man feel better.”

The Paladin Snorted, picking his sword up from where it had fallen.

“Stranger things have happened.” The Paladin admitted, gesturing for the Hellhound to lead on.

“I’d like to know what in the name of Maou is going on!” Shireen demanded, pawing the ground with a forehoof.

“You’re looking at exactly the same thing I am, Captain” Hans replied.

“So Jak is standing there, and it has breasts bigger than mine!” The centaur whinnied in frustration.

“Will you both stop talking about me like I’m not here?” Jak demanded. “And I’m not ‘it’. Not anymore.”

“Can you explain why the sudden change then, Jak?” Shireen demanded, folding her arms and staring at the full and womanly torso of the once-null centaur with slight jealousy.

“I-I don’t know… It’s strange but I… I’m whole.” Jak replied, before bursting into tears.

“Shh… It’s alright Jakkie… It’s alright…” Hans murmured softly, stroking Jak’s equine body.

“Anh! Be gentle Hans… I’m… Sensitive for some reason.” Jak cried, self-consciously holding its… no, her hands over her now-ample chest and blushing slightly at the contact.

“Welcome to what the rest of us have gone through with him.” Shireen drawled, but her eyes were gentle, and she put an arm around Jak’s shoulders comfortingly.

“Oh don’t complain, Amaranth, you’ll get used to the weight soon enough.”

Amaranth gave a sigh. “Is all this gaudiness really necessary, Felicity?” she begged the gold-clad bride who was busily fitting the ornate headdress upon her brow.

“It’s to be expected. Realistically people see us as an extension of Tyris, His manifestation upon the world.” Another bride explained

Felicity cast a look back over her shoulder. “Mind you though, Isabelle, I don’t think people would be adverse if He was to show up in the form He introduced Amaranth to us in.”

“Mmm, I know I sure wasn’t…” the third murmured.

“Sophie! You pervert! I’m pretty sure that’s blasphemy!” Isabelle cried with a shocked expression.

Amaranth furrowed her brow, wincing slightly as the headdress pinched her scalp. “Wait, so even though we’re the brides, we don’t…”

“Continuance? With The God?!” Felicity gasped incredulously before bursting into a peal of crystalline laughter. “Oh Amaranth, even if the experience didn’t obliterate you, Maou probably would out of jealousy.”

“Wait, you knew?” Amaranth demanded.

“Of course we knew, hold still dear.” Felicity murmured, pulling Amaranth about to a better position.

“That’s… That’s…” Amaranth stammered.

“Hypocritical? Unfair? Illogical? True. But necessary. Human birth rates needed to increase dramatically for the sake of our survival. What man would have taken the prohibition against pairing with Mamono seriously if The God Himself was known to be in divine union with Maou?” Sophie explained.

“Oh.” Amaranth said simply.

“Do I detect a hint of disappointment?” Isabelle drawled in gentle mocking.

Amaranth gave a slight giggle, “Well… It would be something to tell the children… Oh God! Children! If we’re the Scions of God-Before-Tyris, how do we…”

“Relax Amaranth, there is a roster of very discrete, meticulously selected and highly trained Paladins who serve that role.” Sophie assured the girl with a saucy grin.

“Highly trained… Oh The God be good, if that isn’t the understatement of the century…” Felicity breathed, fanning herself dramatically with a hand.

“My oh my…” Amaranth mused, a slow smile spreading across her face as she submitted to her new ‘sisters’ ministrations.

Lyra chuckled, luxuriating in the afterglow of copulation and relishing the sensation of the decadent silken sheets against her nude form. The young man next to her brushed long, black hair from his face and leaned up to kiss her.

“What’s so funny, Lyra?” He asked.

“Oh nothing, my Lord Azrael…” The Lilim murmured, returning his kiss. “Just relishing the fact that I finally got a Bishounen

“Been trying for a while?”

She slid arms and batlike wings about him, her scarlet hair spilling across the pillow “Mmm, but now I’ve got you, my Black Knight of Hell. And you’re not going anywhere.”

“Like I had planned to. Still…”

“Still what?”

“The God’s going to be pretty pissed when he finds out you’ve managed to skive a Scion of Ilias from under his nose.” Azrael admitted.

Lyra laughed again, swinging a leg over to straddle him, as she felt his body begin to respond.

“This is the Will of The God.” Lucifer stated in a tone which brooked no disagreement.

Kyla looked at the Seraph with a level gaze. “Of course, Glorious One. And I’m sure as a youth you jumped straight into a boiling kettle when your father ordered you to bathe.”

Lucifer’s angelic features creased with incomprehension.

Kyla sighed. “I’m sorry Llo… Er, Lucifer. I forget you don’t quite have the same frame of reference you once did. We can’t just rip up the fabric of millennia of world governance in an afternoon and magically expect everything to return to some fantasized ‘normal.’ Hang it all, there aren’t even surviving records in the Grand Library of governance methodology pre-Pax! What I’m getting at is that of course I intend to make sure that Humanity follows the will of The God, but we need to make sure we take Humanity’s own limitations into account.”

“I see.” Lucifer mused in understanding. “And it is… Gratifying to know that you hold who I was in such esteem.”

“Always, dear.” Kyla murmured, placing a brief hand on the Seraph’s arm, before pacing the floor amongst the small gathering of Humans and Mamono.

“If Tyris were to appear in the sky, trailing clouds of glory, and announce to all Humankind that the Pax was rescinded, and that Human and Mamono were now allied towards the common good, all interaction between them permitted, it would be an undeniable revelation.”

Lucifer shifted his wings. “There is a ‘but’ coming…”

“Are you sure you’ve lost your humanity?” Kyla jibed, “But… Remember what the Grand Lodge said about Mamono birthrates. Their intrinsic natures are still those of Maou’s creation. They don’t think male births will go much higher than one in ten within the next century. Within a week there would be Mamono bands pillaging, raping, and kidnapping human men all across the world. There would be an inevitable retaliation, and a retaliation against the retaliation, until the entire world was once again engulfed in war.”

“Oh come on now.” A succubus objected.

“Do you deny it, Elia?” Kyla replied

“Well… No, but it’s not exactly polite to just come out and say it!” Elia admitted with a flick of blue hair and a slight shuffle of cloven hooves.

“This privy council was formed from the most trusted and influential representatives throughout the world. The IMFC, Delegates from the Council of Matriarchs, Noble Houses, Mistresses of the Bloodlines, and the Faith Militant. The whole point of it is so we don’t have to be polite, but can make sure that Tyris’s commandments are followed, in a way that doesn’t collapse both species into near extinction again.” Kyla clarified.

“So what do we do?” A Paladin Commandant asked, running a hand through salt and pepper hair.

“It’s like boiling a frog. Heat the water up too quickly and the frog jumps out. But if we relax strictures here and there, watch for issues, listen to feedback, we’ll ease Human and Mamono into the boiling pot of coexistence.” Kyla said with a grin.

“That’s disgusting.” A Lamia in an elaborate robe said, her face crinkled in a mixture of disgust and amusement.

“Stop acting like a priestess, Siahne.” Kyla rejoined.

“Oooh. Bitch!” Siahne exclaimed with a saucy grin, her forked tongue playing at her delicately pointed canines.

“The first order of business then. Since we’ve made it clear that the High Lords will not be re-appointed to avoid the kind of continental upheaval which brought us to the brink of anarchy, we’ve got to have some kind of executive governance, lest we spend the next five years arguing over what colour to draft our proclamations in.” A portly IMFC director mused.

“A sensible suggestion, your Honour.” A magisterium official agreed.

The director bowed to the woman with a smile, before turning to Kyla. “I nominate Kyla as regent of Magisterium until Glorious Lucifer there decides to clue us in as to who these ‘Sovereigns’ are supposed to be.”

Kyla looked at the director with disgust. “Be serious.”

The director grinned “Oh, I am, Excellency. You were there, when possibly the most cataclysmic confluence of events in known or recorded history occurred in the backwater of some westerland barony. I want to have someone I can blame when this all goes tits-up.”

“Blasphemy” Kyla rejoined desperately

The director frowned. “Can that be the first stricture we relax?”

Kyla put her head in her hands to the soft sound of Lucifer’s amused chuckling.

“So where are we going?” Yumi asked, floating next to Samuel as he strolled up the rude gravel road.

“I don’t know, I thought I’d find out what was over that hill.” Samuel replied, pointing at the horizon.

“We haven’t left Caladon yet, you know exactly what’s there.” Yumi drawled, her grin smug as usual.

“Then I’ll see what’s over the next one, and the next, until I’m sufficiently surprised.”

Yumi set herself in his path, throwing her arms about his neck and kissing him. “You’re weird, even for a human.”

Samuel returned her kiss with a grin “I’ll get over it… I’m free Yumi, for the first time in my life. Free of the Pax, free of duty, free of everything.”

“Not everything, you’re never getting rid of me.” Yumi mock-pouted

“Yumi, you were never a duty. You’ve always been my joy, even when I didn’t know it.” Samuel said sincerely, looking into the cheshire’s eyes.

“Y-you don’t have to go saying such embarrassing things…” Yumi stuttered, shuffling her feet as Samuel laughed, raising her chin and kissing her again.

“We did alright then?” Charles mused

“Yeah, I think we did…” Jessie answered, rolling over in their bed to embrace him lazily.

“Still…”

“Mmm?” Jessie propped herself up, giving a brief oath as her horn tangled in the pillowcase. Charles snickered.

“Don’t make fun of me.” Jessie pouted, hitting him gently in the chest.

“Sorry love. I was just thinking. There will be other boys, but Seti’s the first. He’s likely to end up some kind of legendary figure here in Caladon if my accidental fall into apparent folklore is anything to go by… Might help if he had a little sister to keep him honest.” Charles admitted, stroking Jessie’s body.

“Why My Lord Baron, what a wonderful idea…” Jessie drawled, swinging her leg over his body and bending to kiss him seriously.

“…And the world turned, and life began sweetly and in its time came to an end, and so too, does my story.”

The sailor sat back, taking a deep draught from his tankard. “Well bard, what do you think, better than your telling?”

The bard shook his head, depositing the heavy pouch on the table in front of the Sailor without a word. Hoots and cries of acclamation were heard from the taproom, and tankards were banged against tables appreciatively.

“Hold on man, you mean to tell me that Horus and Hathor, the Sire and Dam of Emperor Seti the Great were a chubby second son and a stablemistress in some backwater holding?” A burly Taurean man grumbled incredulously.

“That’s what I said.” The sailor answered with a grin.

“It’s unthinkable, it’s almost blasphemous!” The Taurean rumbled.

“Because of course You’re not biased at all, Torg!” An arachne chittered mockingly from her perch on the taproom ceiling.

“They really didn’t think that Humans could survive if given their own choice?” A woman asked, subconsciously gripping the hand of the human man sitting next to her.

“They didn’t believe in love. And in the end it was love which made everything right again.” The man murmured to her.

“Got it in one lad. Congratulations on your expectant blessing by the way.” The sailor toasted, raising his tankard. Wordless cries of affirmation sounded as others joined in the praise. The woman blushed demurely, putting her hand to her swelling abdomen.

“Well it wasn’t just love…” A reptilian man murmured. “I can’t believe there was a time when I actually couldn’t exist… It’s… a weird thought.” The human woman on his knee gave him a gentle strike to the chest, kissing him softly.

“Oh don’t ruin it scaly!” A wolf-girl cried in disappointment. The reptilian gave an offended hiss, and the lean, muscular human to the wolf’s side stood and glared at him.

“Oi!” The ogre behind the bar yelled at them “Take fight outside or you dinner.”

“Sorry Sarah.” They murmured, resuming their seats.

“Mister… What about the war of the angels?” A small voice came from the sailor’s knee, where a young kitsune had taken up residence in entrancement.

Ara ara… Don’t bother the nice man, Miko.” Her mother admonished softly.

“That, my dear girl…” the sailor began, booping her on the nose gently with a finger “…Is a much longer story than I have time to tell tonight.” He drained the last of his ale with a satisfied ‘ahh’. “And on that note, I’m off.” Scooping up the coinpurse, he tossed it to the ogre. “Put the rest behind the bar for anyone who speaks the praise of Ammit.” The sailor said simply.

The ogre smiled and nodded.

“That kind of generosity’s going to get you in trouble.” An off-duty paladin drawled.

“I’m always in trouble mate.” The sailor replied, walking from the bar with a whistle and a rolling gait.

The sailor made his way down to the docks, where a group of harpies sat squawking about the days affairs.

“Evening ladies.” He murmured as he passed. They acknowledged him with brief shrieks and flapping wings. Chuckling, he unmoored the sleek looking yacht which stood bobbing in the gentle swell. Climbing to its slightly elevated bridge, he sighed at the controls in front of him.

“I do miss sails sometimes…” He murmured, manipulating the controls with practiced ease. With a low, almost inaudible hum, the craft coasted from the docks and towards the open water.

“Remarkable what those resonants came up with once they unlocked the library in truth.” He admitted to himself, adjusting his speed as the swell became the true rolling of the open ocean.

“Talking to yourself? They say it’s the first sign of madness…” A woman’s voice mocked from the side.

“I thought it was hearing an answer!” The sailor replied, locking the controls and heading to the side, extending a hand to help the woman aboard. Crimson tentacles splayed out as she got a grip and pulled her body upright.

“Missed you, Arin.” The kraken said with a gentle smile.

“I missed you too, Ruby.” Arin said, kissing her softly.

“You were telling the story again?” Ruby asked.

“Mmm… It’s important.”

“You know they never believe it.”

“True, but mythology has a way of getting away with you unless you bring it back to the ground every few years.”

“Please tell me you left out that ridiculousness with the Gods.”

“The happy families bit? It’s what they remember, so there’s got to be a reason the Gods made it that way.”

Ruby made a face, sliding her tentacles around his legs subconsciously. “But it’s just so cheesy!

Arin laughed. “Only Sam… and maybe Lucifer could tell you what actually happened that day, and I’m pretty sure your brains would melt.”

“Any word from Lucifer? He still owes you after that thing…” Ruby remarked. Arin shook his head.

“Time’s a bit weird in the Heavens, remember?”

“Time… Heh. How long’s it been, my love?”

“Since all of that? Oh… Three hundred years and change” Arin remarked nonchalantly

Ruby gave a bubbling giggle. “And to think how upset you were when your first century came and went.”

“Guess you kinda get used to it after a while. No doubt Maou’s got a purpose for Her ancient mariner.”

Ruby began purposefully pulling Arin towards the yacht’s cabin with a coquettish look in her eyes. “I know I’m fond of him…”

 

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